Years ago, while traveling through East Africa, we found ourselves considering the optimal, responsible behaviour in the face of begging children, offers of school and orphanage visits, and opportunities to photograph local children. At the time, we couldn’t quite fully characterize our discomfort. We couldn’t quite pinpoint why we questioned ourselves in these circumstances as to what the best thing to do would be. But we did.
Through time, experience and conversation, we’ve come to realize that some actions and behaviours that travellers and travel companies had previously considered benign or even beneficial may actually have unintended negative consequences for children and their families.
Although we consider ourselves savvy when it comes to ethical and sustainable travel, our own journey has continually pushed us to increase awareness about our own behaviour — including how best to support child welfare in travel.
This questioning boils down to two basic questions: Are we doing the right thing? And what can we do to best support local children?
And now, a wholesale reexamination of how best to interact with children is afoot with the recently released G Adventures Child Welfare in Travel Guidelines and Traveller Code of Conduct (https://www.gadventures.com/about-us/responsible-travel/child-welfare/). This is a very good thing.
Child welfare: It's not just about trafficking
Discussions of child welfare in travel have typically centred on sexual abuse or trafficking, which is still a reality in many destinations. But our travels and conversations with colleagues in the industry have begun to shine on a light on seemingly ordinary or benign situations involving encounters with local children that can cause unintended harm.
This is where the G Adventures Child Welfare in Travel Guidelines and Traveller Code of Conduct comes in.
Developed together with Planeterra Foundation, the ChildSafe Movement [http://thinkchildsafe.org/], and other child welfare experts from international organizations and NGOs, these guidelines are not intended to prevent interaction or engagement between travellers and local children during a trip or tour. Instead, their aim is to provide practical guidance and best practices to travel companies and travellers to ensure that travel activities don’t interfere with the well-being or education of the children one might encounter while travelling.
A useful way to think about travel behaviours and child welfare in travel is to ask: “Would I do this with a child at home?" or "Would I want someone to engage with my child (or a child I care about) in this way?”
Best practices and travel behaviours that support local children and their welfare:
1. Ethical photography of children: Be sure to get permission from the child (or a parent) before taking the photo. It’s usually better to take photographs of children in a group or with his/her parents or family rather than a solo context. In addition, consider taking photos which highlight the child in a context of dignity instead of highlighting the stereotypical poverty of a challenging socio-economic situation. Be sure not to share the location or the full identity of the child on social media. It’s a sad reality that traffickers and criminals often harvest information available on social media to target children.
2. Don’t give to begging children or child vendors: Although it can be difficult to say “no” to begging children and child vendors – especially in poverty-strained destinations -- don’t give money, gifts, candies, or other items to children who beg [https://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/]. The same applies to avoiding buying souvenirs or other items from child vendors, especially during school hours. The reason: parents may be less likely to send their children to school if their children earn money begging or selling. In attempting to “help” these children with your purchase, you might instead be unintentionally discouraging their continued education. For an alternative behaviour or interaction, seek out and contribute to reputable organizations which support children’s education, health and well-being.
3. Avoid visits to schools and orphanages: Avoid tours or activities that include visits to schools and classrooms, especially during school hours. While it can be fun to engage and play games with students, interruptions like these can disrupt the teacher’s lessons and derail the learning process. The same goes for volunteering at or visiting orphanages. Just say no. Instead, support organizations that work with disadvantaged families to keep them together. While it may sound harsh not to support orphanages, research has shown a relationship between the increased demand for orphanage visits and volunteering with an increased supply of orphanages to meet that demand — often with children who aren’t actually orphans and have at least one living parent.
4. Report when children are in a compromised position: If you see a child in possible danger or you witness behaviour that you think might be connected to child abuse, report it immediately to your CEO or guide (if you're on a G Adventures tour or other group tour), to a local child helpline, or to local authorities.
For even more information on this topic, be sure to read the G Adventures Child Welfare Traveller Code of Conduct and sign the pledge showing your commitment to support child welfare in travel.
You might be surprised by some of the things you read and consider on this journey, but you’ll certainly be more aware the next time you head out on the road. And the more awareness we travellers have of this issue, the better we can align our travel behaviours and decisions with our values and interest in supporting local children.