Inside The Nepali Orphanage Where Children Faced Abuse And Neglect
'They tell stories of being forced to tend to animals, and of being beaten into submission.’
From the outside, it was an impressive compound. Large -- about three acres -- yet isolated in the depths of Chitwan National Park, with promises of an education and adequate care.
The odour of urine and unwashed clothes hit Andrea Nave as she walked through the doors.
“The children are wide-eyed and bewildered. The dormitories are poorly kept, the bedding is in shreds … so the children are often huddled under hessian matting to keep warm,” the co-founder of the Born to Belong Foundation told ten daily.
This was the reality at an orphanage in the Chitwan District of Nepal where Nave, alongside co-founder Tara Winkler and child protection activists, carried out the largest orphanage closure in the country about two weeks ago.
They rescued 301 children who were found to be malnourished and subjected to abuse.
“One of the partners we work with in Nepal is in talks with the government to assess orphanages and close those that are running below a minimum standard,” Nave explained.
“This particular orphanage has always been too big for the government to manage.”
Children ‘beaten into submission’
Born to Belong is a relatively new organisation that exists to fund child rescues and rehabilitation in Nepal, Cambodia, Uganda and India.
The team met with local authorities in Chitwan who had raised concerns about the children’s welfare.
“In this case, we went into the orphanage ourselves under government direction. We assess every gamut of child care, as well as testimonials from the children, and present these to the government,” she said.
“Once that is done and we are given the green light, we consider it an emergency situation to get those children out.”
Entering the orphanage reaffirmed claims of malnourishment and abuse.
“We found children there who are fed very little… They tell stories of being forced to tend to animals at the orphanage -- buffalos, goats and chickens -- and of being beaten into submission,” Nave said.
Most children were being fed a small amount of water and dahl in the morning, a packet of two-minute noodles at noon and the same amount of dahl in the evening.
The orphanage was also found to be grossly understaffed, with two wardens left in charge of 301 children.
“These children are in large packs and they suffer. There is no one to care for their emotional needs."
The group heard “endless” reports of physical and sexual abuse -- some which were inflicted by those wardens. Others told of being threatened by silence or that ‘they would be burned in a big fire’ if they spoke out.
And while some children tried to escape, the isolated location of the orphanage meant they were brought back.
An endless cycle creating ‘modern day slaves’
Nave has worked in the field for about 15 years. In that time, she has seen the number of orphanages across the developing world grow dramatically.
But she said very few are legitimately housing orphans, instead operating under the guise of convincing parents their child would receive an education and adequate care.
“You would think that out of the 301 children living in this orphanage, for instance, there should be 301 orphans. The fact is there are only 23 who are considered double orphans, meaning both parents are deceased,” she said.
“But that does not preclude grandparents, aunts, or older siblings. There is a whole range of kinship opportunities for that child.”
Research suggests about 80 percent of those children who are kept in orphanages across the world have one living parent -- a number the foundation has found to be as high as 98 percent.
“A family is the best place for a child. Everything points to that.”
But she said many parents are left struggling to bring their child home.
“It is a nasty situation where a parent is trapped into signing a document they can’t read -- because their literacy skills are often below average -- and they can’t afford to retrieve their child until they reach a certain age,” she said.
“Particularly in countries like Cambodia and Nepal, children are being separated from their families often for two to five years. Some who are going home now have lost their local dialect, or won’t know their younger siblings who have arrived in that time.”
It is a relentless cycle perpetuated by a booming industry of ‘voluntourists’, who are drawn in by the opportunity to give back.
“Children are moved into orphanages, trafficked from their family, to provide an opportunity for travellers and generate income for orphanage creators,” Nave said.
“The phenomena may be a well-meaning one, but orphanages exist to fill that supply and demand, particularly from western countries like Australia.
“The revolving doors of volunteers coming through day in day out creates bonds of play for an hour, or three days. But ultimately, they leave and these child are again left abandoned and psychologically damaged.”
Bringing them home
Following the rescue, Nave and her team visited the home of the first two brothers to be returned to their family. They had been away for nine years.
“Their grandmother was on her knees with joy,” Nave said.
“They have lost connections, but our goal is to make sure these families are independent so they can standalone and care for their children.”
This is a slow process -- and one met with challenges.
“When we return children, sometimes we find all sorts of disaray. But it is always a joyful moment, even if the family is in a poor state, and that’s what we try to focus on.”
The orphanage is now a transit home as the foundation works to safely reunite all of the children with their families. At time of writing, almost $74,00 out of a $100,000 goal has been raised.
For more information on the work of the foundation, head to their website.