Kathmandu Valley has dozens of children's homes and orphanages, Thamel is plastered with fliers looking for volunteers and donations to help parentless children. Foreigners can often be seen holding their newly adopted Nepali babies as they dine in hotels.
It is clear that the business of adopting orphans has taken off in Nepal. Below the surface, however, lies complicated political and social conditions that affect the lives of thousands of Nepali children.
Since international adoption from Nepal became legal in 1976, there was a huge increase in the number of both registered and unregistered childcare facilities as well as an increase in incidents of trafficking, false documentation and bribery. This led to the temporary suspension of adoption from Nepal in 2007 by the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare.
But by January 2009, the self-imposed ban was lifted, resulting in an even more disturbing situation.
Inside a small orphanage on the outskirts of Kathmandu live dozens of 'orphaned' children. Younger children lie in small rooms tied to cribs, with the door shut, screaming, in desperate need of a diaper change. Older children stand barefoot outside as they wait for the small amount of food they are allotted each day.
Sadly, this is an all too common scene in Kathmandu. Organisations like UNICEF and Terre Des Hommes Foundation estimate that more than 15,000 Nepali children live in residential care facilities, but no one knows how the children are treated because the shelters are rarely monitored. Shockingly, more than half of the children in the 'orphanages' actually have biological parents.
Many child-care facility owners see the struggle of poverty-stricken parents simply as a lucrative business opportunity. This is not surprising because the average price of an international adoption can be up to $10,000.
On the other hand, many adoptive parents also endure great personal turmoil as they wait for their children. Over the past year, 11 countries including the United States, Canada, and Britain have suspended adoption from Nepal, citing an unreliable adoption system and the documentation practices. Although no new adoptions can be initiated from these countries, parents who have already begun the adoption process have been forced into legal battles with government embassies in their efforts to acquire visas for their newly adopted children.
Dozens of families from these counties have put everything on the line to bring their children home, spending thousands of dollars in legal fees and months stuck in small hotel rooms in Kathmandu. Sharon Vause is one parent. "I am meeting families here who are risking everything to bring their children home," she told Nepali times, "some have sold their homes, taken loans, but we are doing it for our children, we can't give up on them."
A growing group of foreign and domestic voices are once again calling for the suspension of international adoption from Nepal. However, those who oppose this fear that children will be forced to live in bleak orphanages for years before adoption is resumed.
In order to bring adoption practices in Nepal up to the standards outlined by The Hague Convention, child care experts say, there is a need to completely reorganise the process. In the meantime some agencies like Next Generation Nepal are concentrating their efforts on rescuing children with their biological families in hope of one day healing shattered lives.
SOS for children
Even though the plight of non-orphans in orphanages seems insurmountable, there are some glimmers of hope. The SOS Children's Village in Sano Thimi is part of a chain of international long-term care facilities started in Austria by Hermann Gmeiner in 1949.
SOS facilities are based on a family structure with on-campus schooling, extra curricular activities, and family style housing with 10 children living in each of 14 homes with a single "house mother". SOS ethos also includes a unique integration program that helps children learn how to live on their own while still benefiting from the SOS infrastructure and support. No SOS facility offers children internationally or domestically for adoption, expect by extended family members of the children.
In stark contrast to commercial 'orphanages' in Kathmandu, children can be seen at all hours of the day singing in classrooms, playing football outside, eating healthy snacks, and helping to care for their new brothers and sisters. Perhaps such facilities provide a glimmer of hope in the face of uncertainty for the future of adoption in Nepal. "We create a sense of belonging, children have lost their lives and here they can feel important and valid and like they belong," says Khagendra Nepal of the Sano Thimi SOS Children's Village.