The Ministry of Social Affairs today will lay out its plans for the transfer of oversight of the Kingdom’s controversial network of orphanages to local governments, part of an ambitious attempt to move thousands of Cambodian children out of residential care and back into their communities.
Sub-Decree 34, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in March, will be disseminated to authorities at a workshop in Phnom Penh. It hands the power to monitor and manage orphanages to the provincial, district and commune levels to “improve the quality of these services, as the people responsible for their delivery will be closer and more in touch with the needs of their communities”.
Almost 80 percent of the estimated 16,579 children living in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent, and child rights advocates have repeatedly called out the harms of institutionalisation.
The government plans to reintegrate 30 percent of children in orphanages into community care by the end of next year, with a pilot programme launched in Battambang on Tuesday.
Under the new sub-decree, provincial governments will oversee state-run orphanages – including providing food, clothing, health and education services – while the district level will monitor NGO institutions – investigating child rights violations and keeping a record of vulnerable children in care.
Commune officials will be tasked with identifying vulnerable or abandoned children who may need to be placed into residential care, and assist in the return of institutionalised children to their families.
Kampong Speu Governor Vei Samnang welcomed the move.
“Before, when we wanted to help, we needed to propose our plan to the ministry before we could implement the action. But now we have the authority to implement it, which is very time-saving and more effective,” Samnang said.
However, the budgets for these new responsibilities and staffing requirements have yet to be finalised.
While decentralisation has been widely lauded as a way forward for a government often criticised for its over-concentration of power, a lack of governing capacity at lower levels remains a key concern.
“I think in terms of capacity, that’s going to be a big problem,” said Ngan Chamroeun, deputy head of the government’s National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development.
“We are concerned about this, but we need to test this first by giving them some responsibility. Then we will see if any kind of intervention by the upper level [is needed]. But we cannot just have concerns and not do anything – let’s try it first.”
Yos Bopha, director of the Centre for Peace in Phnom Penh, said her Christian childcare organisation would continue to follow government directives, though she suggested local authorities needed to deepen their understanding of child rights.
“Currently we have 20 children in our centre. Two years ago we had 72 children. So we already integrated many children,” she said, adding that local authorities had inspected her facility and shown a willingness to enforce standards. “[The authorities] said we are lacking food, so they gave us six months to [improve] or they will close us.”
But, she said, the question of institutionalisation or reintegration should be decided on a case by case basis.
“For me, whether the children should be with the community and their parents or the centre depends on the situation. If the family is very poor and they cannot afford much, it is good for the children to be with a quality centre,” she said.