[Documents menu] Documents menu

China paying more attention to orphans

The Straits Times, Monday 5 February 2001

International aid workers say the orphanages, once called dying rooms, are improving because of new laws and better-trained social workers

BEIJING - New laws and better-trained social workers are changing the way China cares for its orphans - most of whom are abandoned because of the one-child rule.

Since 1979, China has limited urban couples to one child and rural parents to two, if their first is a girl.

With male heirs favoured, parents sometimes abandon infant girls or sons with serious illnesses or birth defects.

Not long ago, orphans were shunted to state institutions where abuse and neglect were so rife that outsiders called them dying rooms.

Now, new laws are providing better training and better homes as well as encouraging adoption among the Chinese, international aid workers say.

Theres now a real sense of the need for change in the government. Theyre trying to go beyond just providing food and shelter, says Ms Kate Wedgewood, Beijing director of London-based Save the Children.

Figures vary on how many orphans live under state care. The Chinese government counts 20,000 overall, in 73 large institutions and 1,200 smaller ones. Experts say the number is at least five times that.

Abandonment is a legacy of the one-child policy of population control. In the past, some human rights groups and journalists accused China of letting the weak and sick die.

The allegations were generally dismissed by the Chinese and most foreign officials, but they stung and China shut its orphanages to foreign reporters.

Workers at international aid agencies, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering Beijing officials, say orphanages are still over-crowded, under-staffed and under-funded.

Nonetheless, they say, conditions are getting better, with improvements ranging from central heating and more beds to better care.

At the US consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou, which approves all immigration visas for Chinese children going to US parents, the 150-odd babies who pass through the office each week appear as healthy as American children, says consular officer Arlissa Reynolds.

We don't see malnutrition or illnesses, beyond runny noses.

Foreigners have played a large role in the reforms, both by adopting Chinese children and by building better facilities inside China.

Seven years ago, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Save the Children built China's first orphanage designed to replicate family life. The aid organisation, which plans to build four similar homes, also distributes a Chinese-language training manual and video for establishing such facilities.

In the decade since China began allowing adoptions, foreigners have adopted 30,000 Chinese orphans, with Americans taking about three-quarters of them.

Last year, 5,053 babies went to US parents. A US$3,000 (S$5,220) fee for each adoption provides cash for Chinese foster care and orphanages.

The government also wants Chinese citizens to adopt unwanted children. A law passed two years ago allows couples to adopt even if they have a child.

Finding a permanent family in the home country is always the best option, said Ms Wedgewood.—AP