Child Safe Tourism

January 8, 2014

Working to protect children with disabilities

Guest Post – Laurie Ahern, President of Disability Rights International.

An estimated 8 to 10 million children live in residential or institutional care around the world. And those born with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to being locked away and forgotten – many from birth. In some countries, doctors encourage parents to give up their child with a disability and in others, a child born with a disability is looked upon as a curse or punishment to the family. But in many cases, families would keep their children at home if there was adequate support. Up to 95% of children in residential care reportedly have at least one living parent or extended family. It is disability, social exclusion and poverty that push most children into these facilities.

Over the course of 20 years, Disability Rights International (DRI) has documented the conditions children with disabilities are forced to endure in these facilities. No child should grow up in residential care, but they are particularly dangerous places for children with disabilities.

Children and young people with disabilities have a higher risk of abuse than those without a disability. When separated from the protection of their families and placed in institutions where they encounter multiple caregivers, the risk of abuse and exploitation of these already vulnerable children is increased. Institutionalised children have been trafficked for sex, organs and labour. And in countries where the “virgin cure for AIDS” myth still persists, women and girls with disabilities are reportedly three times more likely to be repeatedly raped – due to the assumption that because they have a disability, they must be virgins. Behind the closed doors of institutions, children with disabilities are particularly easy targets for sexual abuse. They are further disadvantaged because they are less likely to obtain police intervention and legal protection if they report these experiences, as they are often not believed or afforded the same importance as children or young people without a disability.

Many companies offer volunteer vacations or “voluntourism” at residential care facilities in developing countries. Often volunteers are not subject to background checks and their interactions with children at the centres are frequently unsupervised. This gives unfettered access to extremely vulnerable children. DRI has found children with disabilities who have “disappeared” from residential care and also uncovered instances of institutionalised teenagers with developmental disabilities that are forced to work in exploitative conditions in the homes of residential care staff.

Parents who do want to keep their children with a disability almost never receive any help or support. But despite overwhelming evidence that institutions are detrimental to children’s well-being, millions of dollars are spent worldwide to build facilities for children with disabilities instead of supporting families, substitute families when necessary, and community services and education. Through the Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children DRI is working to establish a worldwide consensus that institutionalisation of children can and should be brought to an end.

Please think twice before volunteering or visiting children in institutional care. Look for opportunities to support families and communities to take care of their children. For more information on the dangers of institutionalisation and the effects of “orphanage tourism” on children, see here.