There’s no right way

There’s no right way.

I think I should get these words tattooed somewhere on my body so that when I slip and start to think that I’m failing, I can remember: there’s no right way to put a baby to sleep, there’s no right way to feed a baby, there’s no right way to dress, to speak, to do your hair or your makeup, no correct morning routine, career path, exercise routine or diet.

There’s no right way to live life.

Thinking that there’s one way and everyone else knows it and everyone else is doing it – and I’m doing it wrong – is perhaps one of the greatest stresses in my life.

Every situation that’s tough or challenging or heartbreaking is made even tougher by the voice in my head telling me ‘you’re doing it wrong. If you weren’t doing it wrong there wouldn’t be a problem. Other people don’t have this problem. Other people know how to do it’.

But they don’t. There is no right way. No one way. I wish I could cement this so firmly in my mind that when I feel like I’m failing at life, it brightens my mind and dissolves the tension in my body.

There’s no right way.


The birth of Grace

Labour and the days that followed were a stark reminder to me that ultimately we have no control over the moments that most dramatically shape our lives.

I could prepare endlessly for those events – and I did – but I couldn’t determine how they would unfold.

Life does its own thing

My contractions began on a Sunday morning and I was in pre-labour for three days, mostly at home, with contractions every 5 to 20 minutes. The baby was posterior and contractions never built into a regular rhythm.

On the second day we went into hospital for a check-up and I got a drug (that I can’t remember the name of) which helped me to sleep for two hours at home, so that we could pretty much ‘hit the reset’ button and start again.

But things progressed the same for the rest of that day and the next. When we returned to the hospital on Tuesday evening we discovered I was 3cm dilated.

For those not familiar with labour terminology, ‘three centimetres’ is a dreaded term. You’re hoping to hear ‘eight’ or ‘nine and a half’ because ten is the golden number that means your baby is about to arrive.

So things were progressing very slowly and I was getting exhausted. To get things moving, we opted for an induction, which meant getting hooked up to a drug called syntocinon that strengthened contractions and made them come more regularly.

I also opted for an epidural. It doesn’t work for some people but the pain relief kicked in quickly for me and it was heavenly.

Before long I was sitting up in bed, all hyper and full of chat while I watched my contractions pitching on a monitor, not feeling a thing.

This was Tuesday night and we were sure that by Wednesday morning (Valentine’s Day) we’d be on our way, but things still progressed slowly. By 4am I was 4cm.

Labour continued through the full of the next day and at 10pm my pain relief was pulled so that I could feel contractions again and we began pushing.

The pain hit like a ton of bricks but I thought we were so close to meeting our baby, that it initially seemed manageable.

Christy Moore’s Beeswing was playing, a song I love, and I thought, ‘oh the baby will be born to this’. Then our wedding song came on, Etta James’ At Last and I thought, ‘how fitting for the baby to be born during this’.

But it wasn’t to be. I pushed for about 90 minutes (it actually only seemed like 10) but the baby wasn’t coming out.

She had been monitored throughout the induction process and at this point, for the first time, she began showing signs of distress, so an emergency c-section was quickly deemed our best option.

And so it was in theatre at 1am on Thursday 15th February 2018 that we finally got to meet our amazing Grace, all 9lbs of her. The surgeons laughed at her size, and my heart melted with relief when I heard her wailing behind me.

Empowered labour

The labour could have been traumatic, but it wasn’t. I had really been hoping for a natural birth so we’d attended a brilliant birthing course called She Births, which taught us a lot of tricks and tools for natural pain relief and staying calm – massage, breathing techniques etc.

It also educated us about the process of labour – I thought I knew how babies were born, turns out I hadn’t a clue!! – and it left me feeling fearless, even excited about going into labour.

So I was relaxed during those first three days at home. I watched the sun rising behind Sydney’s city skyline and binged on an entire series of Downton Abbey; I drank herbal tea and ate pizza, all while moving through various positions and techniques to ease the contractions.

I’ll always look back on those few days as being very peaceful and beautiful.

As things progressed in the hospital and obstacles arose at every turn, it was really helpful to us that we understood what was going on and talked through our options with our amazing midwife. I knew why I needed to go for a caesarean in the end and I was comfortable with that.

It wasn’t the water birth I’d been hoping for – but it was fine!

A scarier turn

However, the rollercoaster didn’t end with delivery. By Thursday afternoon we noticed that Grace had pinkish lumps on her arms and her beautiful little hands were limp.

Before long she was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and a frightening week followed in which we waited for test results to establish what was going on.

The doctors had seen her symptoms before but never in both hands, so specialists from every department of the hospital were called in to assess Grace.

The most obvious diagnosis was that she had ‘fat necrosis’ in her arms and bilateral Erb’s palsy – a condition caused by nerve damage sustained during birth or in the womb and one that often heals fully in time, depending on the severity of the damage.

This was the diagnosis we were hoping for and thankfully, as the test results came in day by day, nothing contradicted it or suggested anything more serious.

We got home a week after Grace was born, but were readmitted a week later when infection appeared to have set in.

After another week of testing (in isolation, because Grace had come into contact with a health professional who had shingles) we were sent home with a few months of weekly follow-up appointments.

We were elated. It had been a hugely emotional month of highs and lows.

The lowest moment

I remember at one point sitting under a tree outside the hospital with my husband, both of us in stunned silence. We’d just been told by one doctor that Grace might never ‘walk, run or kick a ball’.

As I looked up through the branches of the tree to a beautiful blue sky, I thought, “our lives can go in one of two vastly different directions right now”.

Either we’d proceed on track with the luxury that good health brings a family, being able to freely navigate the world with all its possibilities and opportunities. Or our lives would take a more challenging path.

The decision was not ours to make. Life just does its thing.

It’s mind-blowing to me that every moment of every day, there are people behind hospital walls facing these life-defining moments – while the rest of the world casually goes about its daily business, taking everything for granted.

A walk by the river. Coffee. Getting the train to work.

Good fortune

We will forever be grateful to the incredible people who helped us during those days.

To our midwife at Westmead Hospital who slept there for days as she guided us through that protracted labour. You’re a hero. (We were in the public health system and it was outstanding).

To all the midwives in the Birth Unit and Maternity Ward. Thank you.

To the dedicated nurses, doctors and consultants who left no stone unturned as they cared for Grace and worked toward a diagnosis in the NICU and at Westmead Children’s Hospital. The work you do is unparalleled.

To all the volunteers at the Children’s Hospital; wonderful, kind people who nursed Grace in her room while I ran for a coffee or food and who filled the building with colour and cake sales. The comfort you bring families is so much appreciated.

And to our families at home, praying through sleepless nights as they waited for updates. I’m sorry we were so far away when you wanted to help.

Every baby’s birth is so precious and – like everything in life – so unpredictable.

Good care and kindness were our good fortune when the going got tough.

A very special wedding guest

A horrifyingly surreal feeling washes over you when you try on your wedding dress three weeks before the big day and find that it doesn’t fit. Not even close.

We had just arrived back from Sydney to get married at home and I had no concern whatsoever that there might be a problem with it.

I had lost weight since last trying it on so surely it would fit even more comfortably, I thought. Not so! It zipped comfortably to my ribcage and then wouldn’t move an inch further.

Apparently, when you’re in the early stages of pregnancy, your tummy and hips are not necessarily the first places to expand!

I brought the dress to two professionals who said nothing could be done with it – so I was eight weeks pregnant and three weeks out from my wedding with nothing to wear.

Wedding Fever

Before we got engaged, the prospect of a wedding day had terrified me. Not the marriage itself – that part I was excited for – but the show.

I believed (and still do) that there’s a growing extravagance to weddings at home, a kind of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’  that puts couples under huge pressure to look a particular way and tick an increasing number of boxes.

There’s mounting pressure to lose weight, have wrinkle-free skin and pull off the ‘perfect day’.

And then it’s followed by huge scrutiny – Facebook judgments, Whatsapp chatter and photo analysis – the thought of which gave me serious anxiety.

So I was determined from the moment we got engaged to stay focussed on what really mattered and not get carried away with the nonsense or stress (which is easier said than done – Botox was mentioned to me so many times that I began to question whether I was really taking this whole wedding stuff seriously if I wasn’t getting injected!)

For the most part though, the build-up to our wedding was lovely – right up until that moment the damn zip wouldn’t close!

At that point, the creeping fears of judgement and scrutiny began to wash over me again and it was a little harder not to worry about the silly stuff.

Getting to the Altar

A week of chaos ensued.

I bought a second dress, knew the moment I got it home it wasn’t right, tried to negotiate returning it and then pondered the prospect of buying a third dress.

The clock was ticking. Two weeks to go before the wedding and I still had no dress.

I should mention at this stage that the kindness of wedding professionals toward me as a bride in crisis was immense.

At their busiest time of year, with appointments fully booked out, a few shops in particular – which I have noted below – were incredibly generous with their time and efforts. (If you’re getting married in Ireland, I highly recommend you pay them a visit, both for their dress selections and their service).

As is so often the case, however, it was my amazing mum who found a solution.

She didn’t stop trying. She hadn’t stopped preparing for the ten months leading up to that, meticulously planning everything, and she was completely heartbroken that our time at home in the run up to the wedding wasn’t being spent happily chilling out and enjoying the final preparations together.

But she was determined to find the best solution – and needless to say she did.

She found the one person who said ‘of course something can be done with the dress’: its designer, Sharon Bowen Dryden.

Based in London, she too was incredible. She had the lace and silk shipped from India to London to Glencull by the next week – then another weaver of magic (whom my mum had managed to source in Belfast) so generously agreed to take her one day off (which turned into several more) to bring it all together.

Two days before the wedding, I was finally able to zip up my dress – fully.

The Big Day

I was relieved and grateful to say the least – but also exhausted and emotionally drained. The evening before the wedding I just wanted to cry and sleep.

At about 9pm I went to place flowers on my grandparents’ grave, overlooking the chapel that we were getting married in the next day.

I love sitting there. It’s a very peaceful place and it makes me feel close to them, two people who were so hugely central to my childhood and teens.

And I got a really lovely, overwhelming feeling reminding me of what I’d sworn I’d focus on the day of our wedding: how lucky I was with my husband and all the people celebrating with us.

It may sound corny but I’ve seen how frequently those priorities get lost in the pressure and hopes of creating a ‘perfect day’.

Remembering it gave me a happiness and glow that made our ‘big day’ truly one of the best days of my life.

From the moment I woke up until I went to bed the next morning, the entire day was filled with the most beautiful, special moments that I will never forget and feel so grateful to have experienced.

Even after those three weeks of chaos, I wouldn’t have changed a thing – and I know my husband and family wouldn’t either.

It meant we had one particularly special guest at our wedding.

And almost 28 weeks later, we are just about ready to meet that little toots in person.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thank you to all the following for helping make our day so special:

The bridal boutiques: Castle Couture, Galgorm; Marie Me Bridal, Randalstown; Forever Bridal, Belfast

Designer Sharon Bowen Dryden

Dressmaker Lynne Gregg

The incredible Harvey’s Point, Bradley Henderson photography, Paul O’Reilly, Connolly Digital, Eamon Kelly, Father O’Dwyer, Noleen and Grace Neill and Bronagh Broderick, The Bentley Boys Band, Floral designer Stephen Mallon, Hidden Gem Beautique, Maria’s Hair and Beauty Salon and Glendale Limousines.

Joe and Nicola Canavan

And of course, our much-loved bridal party and guests (especially my miracle-working mum!)


Cambodia: A story that’s hard to tell

Warning – some graphic content.

You know the last verse of Don McLean’s American Pie?

“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news…She just smiled and turned away.”

I felt like that girl when I tried to write about Cambodia.

I left there in June 2015 to return to Australia and I have tried to write about it many times since, about how the country has progressed in the 40 years since Pol Pot’s genocidal regime cast its pall over the country.

But I couldn’t write about it. If it is possible for your heart to feel sick, that’s how I felt when I left:  So, so sad and deflated, and I just couldn’t describe it.

That was in such sharp contrast to how I felt the first time I visited there, in 2011, when I fell instantly in love with beautiful Cambodia.

I left the grey skies of Belfast that October and stepped off this rickety little plane in Phnom Penh to be greeted by my friend Maeve and a blissful humidity that seemed so heavenly to my cold Irish bones.

At the same time, I was hit by this whole new world of colour: The streets of Phnom Penh, lined with fabulous French colonial-style buildings whose balconies were overflowing with the most vibrant colours: green, orange, pink, yellow – all draped against a background of blue, blue sky.

I spent luxurious afternoons lounging by pools at various secret-garden-style villas being served cocktails and sweet peanuts.

The food was like nothing I had ever experienced, exploding with colour and flavour and freshness; eaten in cool, trendy bars and restaurants or on a stool along some run-down little side street, sitting under a torn-up umbrella – it didn’t matter where, it all tasted fabulous.

And Phnom Penh seemed such a romantic place to me, full of photographers and filmmakers and journalists and intelligent, passionate people who worked for NGOs and drank coffee in elegant colonial cafes, like the Foreign Correspondent’s Club or Java Café, places that you could picture Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman just coasting into.

All this, while Buddhist monks of all ages strolled peacefully in the chaotic streets below – and the indescribably magnificent Temples of Angkor cast their air of great mystery from the country’s northwest.

Of course, this exhilaration and romantic idealism – even in 2011 – was greatly tempered by my knowledge of what had happened to the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, as recent in their history as the Troubles is to the people of Northern Ireland.

As a tourist, you can stand inside the blood splattered walls of the interrogation centre, S21, which remains as it was found the day the Khmer Rouge fell to Vietnamese-backed troops, on January 7, 1979.

You can see the hundreds of portraits of men, women and children who were photographed on the day they arrived at S21 to be tortured, and you can try to read their faces: Just how terrified or bewildered were they at that moment? Did they know what was ahead of them?

Or you can stand in the silent ‘killing fields’ on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (one of an estimated 20,000 such sites in the country), where most of those tortured beings ended up, blindfolded, to be executed.

Where you walk across splinters of their bones and fragments of their clothing that have since risen to the surface and where more than 8,000 skulls are stacked to be viewed by you and other tourists.

You can also stand by a great, big tree there and know that it was the spot that babies were mercilessly killed, by smashing their heads off the tree’s trunk.

That’s what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted less than four years but claimed the lives of a quarter of the population.

That level of suffering is incomprehensible.

And as a first-time tourist in Cambodia in 2011, this horrific past remained always at the periphery of my mind, part of the experience, but I felt buoyed and hopeful because the country had come so far from those dark days.

It has – but as a second-time tourist in Cambodia in 2015, it became clear to me that such optimism was naïve.

When you go beyond the trendy bars, exotic tastes and genocide spectacles of the tourist experience, Cambodia is a country still being devastated by self-serving elites and egotists who have arguably done little to improve the lives of average Cambodians.

Political corruption is so brazen it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

I was only there for four months as a second-time tourist in 2015, so the depth and scale of the country’s problems go way beyond my understanding. Issues such as the garment industry and the sex industry are hugely complex – but there are other big problems.

The man who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, Hun Sen, and his extremely powerful family, are seen by many commentators as being corrupt, self-serving and having no respect for democracy – unless its suits them.

Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, controls the courts and parliament; NGOs say he has presided over the use of extreme violence and murder to stamp out dissent, and he appears driven mostly by a desire to maintain his grip on power.

The people of Cambodia are, generally, very poorly educated and lacking in the types of skills that could drive the country’s economy – if there were jobs (but there aren’t). It is estimated that a quarter of Cambodian women are illiterate, with less than 40% of children enrolled in secondary schools.

The consequent desperation feeds into the hands of human traffickers and many men and women get trapped in horrendous conditions, often in Thailand and Malaysia.

Land-grabbing – the process whereby the political elite take land from the people, those who live on it, farm it, rely on it for food and shelter, and then give it to large companies – is another huge issue.

An estimated 400,000 people have been affected by evictions since 2003, with 73% of the country’s arable land passed into the hands of companies as of 2012.

It’s astounding, contributing not only to increased poverty and heartache, but also having devastating environmental consequences, with national parks and wildlife sanctuaries ‘being turned into rubber plantations’.

Global Witness described Cambodia as a “country for sale”, where “biased or corrupt decisions frequently result in the rich and powerful in Cambodia gaining all the benefits, whilst the poor and vulnerable…pay all the costs”.

When you stop being a tourist, you see this is the case in every aspect of life in Cambodia – and that makes me so sick.

That the suffering of the Cambodian people continues, more than 40 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.


Irish emigrants and the Brooklyn question: Home or here?

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn, Irish emigration

Homesickness, like seasickness, does not feel good.

And it is best not to dwell on.

So for me, watching Brooklyn, the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s much loved novel, felt a little like steering a rickety boat through choppy seas.

As an Irish emigrant, lying in the beautiful outdoor surroundings of Kings Park Moonlight Cinema in Perth, I cried and laughed at its portrayal of Irish emigration in the 1950s.

It is a sad realisation that few things have changed. Emotional farewells (and reunions) no longer take place at the docks. But airports tell their own tales.

We still look to our fellow ex-pats when we arrive in new countries, in Irish bars and through GAA clubs.

We help each other get set-up, find work, and offer support in the way our families and communities support us at home.

And, while communication may be so much easier and faster today than it was in the ‘50s, homesickness remains the same.

At its worst early on, it is a unique, heart-wrenching loneliness.

It eases but it hits at times later, maybe at Christmas or a significant day at home: someone’s birthday; a wedding; an anniversary; if someone dies and you can’t make it home for the funeral.

When events like that come along, they can wipe you out for a few days, leaving you feeling alone, like an outsider in your new surroundings.

The challenge thereafter, which becomes central to Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, is a question that haunts most Irish emigrants abroad today:  home or here?Ellis Island immigrants

Responsibilities being neglected towards family and friends are keenly felt. The want and need to have them around us; to be a part of their daily lives and have them a part of ours.

Just the want to be home, in a place that is yours.

And then there is this new world, where opportunities seem so much greater and life seems lighter, with beach days and lattes in the park. Sunshine! And the happiness sunshine brings.

Left-over money at the end of the month (in theory!)

I used to look at Irish ex-pats, holding on with all their might to their national identity, singing romantic songs about their homeland, and I would think ‘if you love it so much, why don’t you just go home?’

Perhaps, when it comes down to it, it is that simple – but it certainly does not feel that way.

I left home as a traveller and never thought of myself as an emigrant because I left a good job. But I feel like an emigrant now because my desire to go home almost equals my desire to stay. Almost.

Anyone who has seen Brooklyn knows the choice Ronan’s character makes.

For Ireland, it will be interesting to see how our generation – and the generation after us – answer ‘the Brooklyn question’.


Here versus Home: Anecdotal evidence from Christmas 2015

If reaction to this post by Irish Around Oz on Facebook is anything to go by, ‘here’ is kicking ‘home’s’ ass:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has issued a Christmas message in which he encourages Irish people living abroad to come back to Ireland for work. What do you think heading back or not?

Posted by Irish Around Oz on Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Below is a pretty representative sample of comments (excluding the expletive-laden posts):

“If u want the youth that left to come back,

Irish emigrants chose Christmas at the beach,
John Lyons accompanied this photo with the line: “Let me think enda??? Not a hope”.

punish the banks that put our country in that hole were in, then step down for not doing it sooner,” John O Mahoney posted.

Seve Cafolla said: “2000 people queuing for food parcels the week of Christmas and another 1000 expected. No minimum wage increase to match the rental prices, health care is crap and they expect us to go home with zero job opportunities unless youre degreed up to the hilt…#pissoffenda”

Irish emigrants in Australia
“I think I’ll stay”, this photo was captioned.

And Gemma Grant’s outlook was not any brighter: “I came home on Monday.. I spent a few months before I returned applying for jobs.. No such luck so unfortunately it looks like I will have to return to Australia in the new year not by choice but by necessity.”

In general, I thought the post – and responses to it – was quite an eye opener as to how angry and pessimistic many emigrants are about (what I’m now calling) ‘the Brooklyn question’.

However, a Christmas Facebook feed full of ‘coming home videos‘ – all those people who surprised loved ones with their return, all those tears – I think suggests something more positive.

That there is one thing powerful enough to out-muscle sunshine, beaches and even job opportunities – Irish mammies!

(And daddies) (And brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and cousins and friends).

I know that as well as the next.

Family, Christmas, Skype, Irish emigration, Australia
Skyping home for Christmas just isn’t the same thing (that’s me on the TV…out of sight!!) 2013.


The Courage of Convictions

When I was young, between the ages of about 11 and 15, we would go almost every Monday and Tuesday evening to our local youth club, which was run by Mickey Harte.

We would have gymnastics training or play dodgeball or tennis or badminton. All those kinds of things. And I remember one week, we were all getting excited about the upcoming International Rules Series, when Mickey made a throwaway comment to the effect that the Series was ridiculous and detrimental to the GAA.

I was raging. I loved the excitement that surrounded the games: we would spend the afternoon in school trying to get updates and then we’d rush home to watch the recorded version with my Granny and Grandad. I’m pretty sure I pulled a successful sickie on one occasion and got to stay at home and watch it live, with tea and biscuits on tap.

We were probably a little biased in our house because my uncle and our neighbour, Eoin Gormley, were both playing. In those days, when there was no sign of Tyrone lifting Sam Maguire, we were very proud of them representing Ireland and playing on an international stage.

So I was really pissed off with Mickey Harte. They were his neighbours too and I thought he should be supporting them rather than, as my early-teen eyes saw it, insulting them.

But that was and is typical of Mickey Harte: he doesn’t do or say what other people think he should. He doesn’t get involved with the hype and excitement that engulfs the rest of us. He doesn’t get swept away. He stands his ground.

He has a kind of bravery that seems rare to me – that he can remain steadfast in his beliefs without having to shout about it, or defend it or even explain his position.

To me, he gives meaning to the term “courage of convictions”. He embodies the term.

The recent furore that surrounded Tyrone, on the other hand, was the embodiment of nastiness with no conviction.

It typified contemporary debates: from the loud, insulting and tacky fear-mongering of some, to the coarse and horrible language of others, both attacking and defending Tyrone. And, as is typical when the media creates a polarising storm, whether it concerns refugees searching for safe harbour or Kim Kardashian’s backside, many blew to one camp or the other and became galvanised in their views.

But not Mickey. He seemed to stand and take the blows, possibly hurt, surely angry, but he didn’t shout about it. He just carried on with business.

When we were young, (and when I say “we”, I mean my peers: my brother and cousins and childhood friends – Mickey had started losing a few hairs on top at that stage) – when we were young, Mickey ran a lot of things. He was running that youth club. He organised and encouraged cross-community activities at it. He had people in speaking about healthy eating and he spoke about things like “positive thinking”.

He always seemed, to me, to be someone who wanted to make things better and to become better himself.

But he always seemed to be doing things that people disagreed with or that went against what was popular. He was proactive in doing what he believed was the right thing.

That night that I came home from youth club fuming because of what he had said was not the last time I disagreed or even felt a little offended by his views.

This morning, with all that in mind, I watched his post-match interview with BBC and I felt a great heart-swell for the man that is Mickey Harte.

Who remains dignified.

Who, in the same sentence as he discusses defeat, talks about building for the future.

And who stands firm in what he believes. No matter which way the wind blows.

(Last I heard, he still thinks the International Rules Series is rubbish. Raging!)

More Harm Than Good

Written March 6, 2015

I knew, more with time than immediately, that I had served only to damage a vulnerable child: another stranger to pick him up, set him down and walk away.

The consequences of my actions, however, were probably more far-reaching than that.

In 2008, I was volunteering with an Irish organisation¹ in Zambia when I visited two orphanages (independently of the organisation I was with).

Beforehand, I presumed, without thinking too much about it, that it was a good thing to do – everyone that visited a developing country seemed to do it so it must be.

But afterwards, I felt quite uneasy about the whole thing. I had witnessed a new born baby’s dying moments and I had watched a toddler wail, moments after he had lulled contentedly in my arms.

I knew I should not have been intruding as a spectator in the intensely private and sacred moments of a child dying. I should not have been allowed to.

And the toddler that was crying did so because I had set him down and he wanted to be picked up again.

A young girl working at the orphanage said to me, with a mix of hope and encouragement, “he likes you, you take him home?”

But, of course, that had never been my intention.

I was reminded of this when I arrived in Cambodia and first saw images from a campaign run by child protection NGO Friends-International in partnership with UNICEF.

The images were of miserable-looking children crouched in display units, surrounded by curious people taking photographs, with the line ‘Children are not tourist attractions’ stamped below.

Cambodia, orphanages, tourism
“Children Are Not Tourist Attractions”

Orphanage Industry

The campaign started in 2011 to inform tourists of the damage they cause when they visit orphanages.

In Cambodia, child protection agencies say, such visits have encouraged the growth of an ‘orphanage industry’ in which many institutions are run as profit-making ventures, filled with children that, for the most part, are not orphans.

Often they are kept in “abysmal conditions” – the more miserable they look, the logic goes, the more money the institution is likely to receive from well-intended foreigners.

And many children are “abused and neglected”.

It is easy to see how when just about anyone can set up an orphanage , encourage other random people off the street to visit, to have a look, maybe spend some time with the children, all in return for donations.

From tourists and paedophiles alike.

It was a sobering experience to realise my actions were the kind that incentivised such an industry, a breeding ground for child sex abuse.

Good Ones?

Of course, it is important to note that so many of these orphanages are not set-up with a sinister agenda, nor do they intentionally exploit children.

I met an amazing Australian woman in Phnom Penh who was breaking her back trying to run a registered orphanage for children with the most severe disabilities. These children were genuinely orphaned or had been abandoned in a society where disabled children are often outcast.

Her struggle to provide a roof over their heads and provide for their most basic needs exemplified the incredible people behind many orphanages and, as she would argue, the present absence of any alternative to an institution that would protect these kids.

But for the large part, such institutions are neither necessary nor desirable, according to child protection agencies. That was another lesson for me: orphanages are usually not necessary.

Save the Children and UNICEF both advocate for community and family-based alternatives, with orphanages to be used only as a last resort (in the immediate aftermath of war, for example) and as a temporary measure.

And while so much responsibility for creating and supporting those family and community-based alternatives lies with governments, the same child protection agencies emphasise the role individuals play.

“Private donors in particular,” said Save the Children, “are often ignorant of the fact that by supporting residential care they are inadvertently diverting essential resources away from more positive family-based care options”.

It’s like giving money to kids begging on the streets: it only encourages their parents to put them there.

A Global Issue

In February, UNICEF and Friends-International launched a new campaign that was aimed not at tourists but at those private donors in the West: individuals, faith-based groups and businesses that give money to institutions.

Images in this campaign depict children as dolls called ‘My New Orphan’, wrapped up in shiny packaging being rolled off a manufacturing line. “The more you donate,” their packaging reads, “the more (orphans) you create’.

Cambodia, orphanages, donors, Friends-International
Friends-International calls on donors to support families instead of orphanages

The message is simple: they want westerners to stop funding orphanages in Cambodia.

“We do say help, please help, because there is so much to do in Cambodia,” said the founder of Friends-International, Sebastien Marot, “but give to the right places”.

I spoke to him at the campaign launch in Phnom Penh. Given my experience in Zambia, I was keen to know if “orphanage tourism” was having similar outcomes in other developing countries and if Friends-International intended to extend their campaigns to such places.

“Cambodia is just the beginning,” was his reply.

He said his organisation and UNICEF have been contacted by countries including Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Brazil and eastern European countries about the possibility of developing similar campaigns there.

“We are realising,” he said, “that this issue is in fact everywhere”.

If you would like more information on responsible tourism and donating, you can visit the Friends-International website; alternatively you can find information on responsible volunteering at the Irish site Comhlámh, which also has a Volunteer Charter.

¹The organisation I went to Zambia with was the Spirit of Paul McGirr – a great, community-based project. You can find more about it here