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Tourism boom in Uganda driving demand for orphanages and putting children at risk of sexual exploitation

Posted on May 7, 2019

Tourism is high on the agenda for Uganda with it experiencing the highest growth rate in tourism across Africa in 2011. Across the continent tourism industry has more than tripled in the last two decades with numbers of tourist’s arrivals set to more than double again by 2030.

ECPAT International’s latest report finds that voluntourism has also grown in popularity in Uganda, driving the proliferation of orphanages in which tourists and volunteers are willing to donate to ‘help’ children. There is growing concern for the safety of children as a rapid increase in orphanages with little concern for child protection or regulation has increased  risk for sexual exploitation and abuse.

“There is mounting evidence of the clear risks that orphanage voluntourism poses for children. The only people who should be in contact with vulnerable children in institutional care are trained and experienced child care professionals – not tourists visiting for short periods of time.” – Mark Kavenagh, Head of Research, ECPAT International

Specifically, as a result of ‘orphanage tourism’ the number of children in residential care facilities in Uganda has grown from 1000 in the 1990s to more than 50,000 today.

Voluntourism programmes offering visits to orphanages are mostly Western foreigners who visit for short periods of time, have no experiences or appropriate skills in childcare, are often no required to undergo background checks, and have unsupervised access to vulnerable children. Some ‘orphanages’ operate without a licence approved by the Ugandan Approved Home Regulations.

Many of these orphanage operators are driven by profit. The report highlights a Guardian article which found a total of 150 million trips were planned for Uganda in 2016 with orphanages being a high focus on the trip. It also found that on average each mission trip included 12 participants, each contributing USD 3,000. This would amount to USD 5 million spent on mission trips alone in Uganda. On the other hand, closing an orphanage of 30 children, addressing the core causes of separation, and supporting their families for at least a year would cost only USD 12,000. In face orphanages can be 10 times more expensive than family-based care alternatives such as foster care.

Legal frameworks to protect children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism are also lacking.  Neither the Penal Code nor the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (2009) (PTPA) provide any specific protections for children.

The Children Act in Uganda does vaguely allude to SECTT. The Act defines the role of the National Children Authority, which includes “engaging in dialogue with all sections connected with tourism with a view to minimizing the opportunities for child abuse”. The PTPA also includes “sex tourism” in its definition of sexual exploitation, a component of the trafficking definition refers to “a program organized by travel and tourism – related establishments or individuals, which consists of tourism packages or activities, utilizing and offering escort and sexual services and practices offered for any persons as part of work recreation”.

No companies from the travel and tourism industry based in Uganda have signed The Code ( short for “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”) however there are 15 members with operations.


Read the full report.