JK Rowling has urged gap year travellers not to volunteer at orphanages as she gave a speech at a global forum.
The Harry Potter author launched her #HelpingNotHelping campaign, which aims to end child trafficking and family separation caused by the orphanage system, during a surprise appearance at the One Young World Summit on Thursday.
The campaign is spearheaded by international charity Lumos, which Rowling leads. She founded it after reading about child abuse at an Eastern European institution in a newspaper.
Lumos is named after the light-giving spell in Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series.
The charity’s new campaign illuminates how some orphanages exploit children for money from tourists, and the devastating effects of the system.
Speaking at the summit in central London, Rowling, who was dressed all in black, said: “Do not volunteer in orphanages.
“The reason we don’t have orphanages in the developed world is because they cause often irreparable harm.
“The system renders children vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, and impacts their life prospects.
“I’m not for a second suggesting that orphanages are always set up with bad intentions, but the effect on children is universally poor.”
The world’s first billionaire author, who has donated much of her wealth to charity, said: “One of the facts which most stunned me, is eight out of 10 of those living in so-called orphanages are not orphans.
“Eight out of 10 will have one living parent, at least, and overwhelmingly, the family did not want to give up the child.
“This is where it becomes particularly grim.
“The number one reason for them ending up in an orphanage is poverty.
“Many are disabled (…) and the only hope their parents had for education and healthcare in that community is to put the child in the so-called orphanage.”
She said “voluntourism” – where travellers “help out” at orphanages as part of a holiday – is funding the abuse of children via the orphanage system.
Rowling, 54, said: “The West has often, with the best intentions, funded these orphanages.
“Another key pillar propping up the orphanage business – and I have to call it that – is people volunteering at and visiting orphanages.
“In other words, voluntourism.
“Overwhelmingly, of course, people believe they are doing good.
“Often young people come away thinking they did good, and are appalled when the facts are laid in front of them, that they have been perpetuating abuse.
“Some orphanages are set up literally to abuse children – to get money from the pockets of voluntourism.
“If money and energy was given to charities instead, we could solve this problem within decades.”
Eight million children are living in institutions around the world, according to Lumos.
Deputy CEO for Lumos Alex Christopoulos, who grew up at an orphanage in Nairobi because her parents could not afford to raise her, spoke alongside Rowling at the conference.
Ms Christopoulos said: “I am a living testimony because my parents were alive.
“Every child has a story of neglect, abandonment, violence.
“They have been robbed of the right to love.
“You see visitors grab you and tell you how adorable you are, but then they walk out. It’s not easy.”
She added: “Children are not tourist attractions, they are not animals.”
On Monday, the Government also warned against the “serious and unintended consequences” of orphanage tourism, ahead of Lumos’s campaign launch.
The Foreign Office said visitors may “unknowingly contribute towards child exploitation” by volunteering at overseas institutions.
As well as founding Lumos, Rowling has supported charities including Comic Relief, One Parent Families, and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain.
Last month, she donated £15.3 million to support research into the treatment of multiple sclerosis and similar conditions at the University of Edinburgh’s Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, which is named after her late mother.