Prior to the devastating earthquake in Nepal, an estimated 16,000 children were living in orphanages and children's homes in the tiny South Asian country, one of the world's poorest. As humanitarian aid pours into the country and there is a rush to provide shelter for these vulnerable children, rebuilding and funding orphanages is not the answer, as it will only fuel an already exploding industry where children are the commodity.
In Kathmandu alone, there were an estimated 600 orphanages before the disaster, with only about 10 percent meeting the government's minimum standards for a child care facility. Most children residing in them are not orphans at all, come from rural areas and still have loving parents and extended families.
But regardless, the orphanage business is booming in Nepal -- especially in parts of the country most frequented by tourists, many who pay to volunteer in orphanages. Children can be intentionally underfed, shabbily dressed and living in squalid conditions in an effort to elicit even more donations. When volunteers go home they often "adopt" an orphanage and raise money to send back to the children they left behind -- money that the children will never benefit from. Well-meaning donors rarely pick up on the scam.
In order for this highly profitable business model to succeed, unscrupulous orphanage owners need a constant flow of children.
Families in remote, rural areas are easily duped by a slick sales pitch offering a good education for their children in urban settings, and parents are willing to pay what little they have to provide it for them. Once delivered to bogus orphanages, children are at risk for sexual and physical abuse, not only from staff, but from a steady stream of volunteers and donors who receive unfettered access to them.
And the psychological damage of never seeing family again can be with them for a lifetime.
No doubt there could be children who actually lost a parent or grandmother as a result of the earthquake. But the focus of donor dollars should be on reuniting all children with parents or extended family and not constructing buildings that will keep them apart.