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J.K. Rowling: Don’t Give Your Time or Money to Orphanages

6 minute read

This is a lightly edited transcript of remarks by J.K. Rowling at the One Young World global forum in London on Oct. 24. The author was speaking at the launch of #HelpingNotHelping, a campaign led by her children’s charity Lumos intended to educate young people about the potential harms of orphanage tourism and volunteering.

In 2004, I read a story about a 6 or 7-year-old boy who was being kept 24 hours at a time in a cage bed, which is effectively a cot with chicken wire around it.

I saw this very disturbing image, and I was pregnant at the time with my third child and think I was feeling particularly hormonal and vulnerable, and Ient to turn the page. I’m not particularly proud of that impulse but it’s important to acknowledge that as humans, some situations are so distressing that you flinch. And so I went to turn the page and I thought ‘no, you have to read the story and if the story is as bad as the picture looks, you have to do something about it.’

So I read the story, and it was actually even worse than the picture looks. It talked about an institution where young people with disabilities were being kept, effectively confined to small cells, in an Eastern European country.

That’s how Lumos started. Our NGO is named after the light-giving spell in Harry Potter, which we decided was appropriate because what we’re trying to do is reveal children who are often very hidden away and isolated in these so-called orphanages around the world, and work together to release them.

The reason we don’t have orphanages in the developed world is we know they do often irreparable harm. We understand that institutionalisation is one of the worst things that you can possibly do to a child. We understand it renders children very vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, it has huge effects on their normal development, and it massively impacts their life chances.

One of the facts that most stunned me when I started listening to this seriously is that eight out of 10 children living in so-called orphanages – and this statistic applies globally – are not orphans. Eight out of 10 will have one living parent at least, and overwhelmingly the family did not want to give up the child.

So why are they in the so-called orphanage? Overwhelmingly, the number one reason is poverty. Then you have natural disasters, and you have disability. Disabled children are greatly over-represented in institutions worldwide, and that will be again not because parents want to give that child up, but because the only hope they have for education and healthcare for that child in that community, is to put them into the so-called orphanage.

And then we come to the part that I think we really want to talk about today. The West has, often with the best intentions, funded huge amounts to these so-called orphanages. But another key pillar propping up the orphanage business—and I have to call it that—is people volunteering and visiting orphanages.

In other words, ‘volun-tourism’ and orphanage tourism, where you’re taken to see children in an orphanage as part of your travel experience, or when you go believing – which overwhelmingly people of course believe they’re doing good – they volunteer for a couple of weeks, or a month.

And often these young people will come away believing they did good, and are appalled when the facts are laid out in front of them, and they realize that they may have contributed to the perpetuation of abuse.

They’ve brought foreign money into the country and we do know that some orphanages are set up literally to exploit children. The children are the bait for foreign donations and a volunteer experience, and the money is going into the pockets of the people running the orphanages.

However, we do have some hope.

There seems to be a tipping point being reached where governments are acknowledging now that institutionalisation is profoundly damaging to children, which is wonderful. And we are thrilled that the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office has amended its travel advice to warn people of the harms of ‘volun-tourism’. It’s massive.

Lumos is thrilled to have partnered with Hope and Homes for Children and with the Association of British Travel Agents. We have made an orphanage tourism taskforce and what we are doing there is trying to shift the travel industry from supporting orphanage tourism, and that’s also a big breakthrough.

I suppose I would say there are three big things that people can do watching this.

The first is and I’m sure by now very obvious, don’t volunteer in orphanages. Don’t give your time to propping up a system that we know does real, serious harm.

And then there’s the financial aspect. If you have money to give when you are travelling, put it into local businesses because that helps communities. That’s something real you can do when travelling. Don’t go and visit orphanages.

If you want to support charities or projects, just do a bit of due diligence and make sure you’re dealing with the root causes here: look at poverty and building community services and so on.

The last thing I’d say, and what we would love to see as an organisation, is to see businesses amending their social responsibility policies. We’d love to see those corporate policies changed to make sure they’re not supporting so-called orphanages or child institutions. That is something hugely powerful that everyone can do.

I know I said three things but I’m going to say a fourth thing. We are looking to educate people because changing the mindset is what is ultimately going to make the difference. If everyone in this hall went out today and spoke to their university, their college, their place of work and friends and family and said ‘we need to not support this.’

We know that millions and millions and millions of children are trapped and they are voiceless. The world needs to hear what orphanages are doing to children globally.

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