After a week in paradise it is time to venture into new territory. Last year I picked up a flyer for the Peduli Anak Foundation. It’s a child development center on a nearby island that caught my eye because of the brief mention of UNICEF in the literature. This is significant because the European division of the hotel company I worked for has been partnered with UNICEF for over 15 years in a program called Check-out for Children. Donations received from hotel guests and employee fundraising efforts have generated over $25 million dollars toward immunizations and educational aid for children very much in need. It’s an outstanding program that I was proud to be a part of and it sparked my interest in checking out what was going on in Peduli Anak.
The program is supported by an organization out of the Netherlands and my tour guide, a bubbly 28-year old named Muslaeni, confirms something I learned in Banda Aceh last year but did not wish to believe. The majority of the children are here not because their parents are incapable of caring for them, but because they do not want them. She explains that marriage in Indonesia occurs at a very young age and unlike views of many other Asian cultures, the union does not carry the weight of permanent consequence. It is commonplace to marry multiple times and it has also grown acceptable to give up children from previous marriages. This means either handing the child off to a grandparent, or if it is an option, to an orphanage. Granted, this scenario is not the case for all abandonments and many parents exercise visitation privileges, but with the majority of the circumstances in Peduli Anak and at the orphanage I worked with in Banda Aceh, falling into this category, it does make one stand up and take notice.
Every choice we make in this lifetime comes with personal consequence, but guilt doesn’t provide food and shelter for children left without a home or family. The core solution is not to build more centers. What is required here is a stern talking to and societal change. Only once social norms deem a parent’s unloading of their child as unacceptable, will it be acknowledged as such. Until an invisible Big Brother steps in to begin the process of enacting change and educating the population, centers like Peduli Anak, need not only be celebrated, but also supported.
The 80 boys and girls living at the center have been assimilated into a lifestyle that provides a real sense of self: a safe environment, good education and positive social interaction. Indonesia is a country, like many in this part of the world, bursting at the seams with need and while funding exists for visible physical improvements to the center, educational support is their biggest challenge. There are any number of ways to provide assistance and taking one look at these children provides more than 80 ample reasons.
The experience Muslaeni provided me with was as unforgettable as her gregarious personality and upon completion of my tour she was very close to climbing into my backpack to join me. So I make her a deal, next year when I return, I promised to whisk her away for a one-week excursion. We’re both adding the dates to our calendars and I hope she’s ready because I intend to keep my word.