'Big Mum' on her search for an heir to her Cambodian orphanage and welfare empire.

By Helen Grasswill.

She is a dynamo who has charmed both a prince and a prime minister into helping her to be ‘Mum’ to hundreds of orphaned, raped, trafficked, disabled and abandoned children.

But at 70, Geraldine Cox admits that the clock is ticking and she must find a successor to run her orphanage and welfare empire in Cambodia.

“I’ve been trying for many years to try and find someone to put up their hand,” she told Australian Story.

“But it’s a big ask. Who wants to live in rural Cambodia with no privacy, hundreds of kids, the pressure of having to raise money, travelling economy, on a small salary?”

With her flaming red hair swept up and held together with a ubiquitous chopstick, this septuagenarian is far from the typical image of an orphanage administrator

But then very little about Ms Cox is ordinary.

She first went to Cambodia as a fun-loving, 25-year-old secretary in the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“I pictured myself swanning around in a black cocktail dress, seducing James Bond types,” she said.

Instead, the Vietnam War was spilling over the border into Cambodia, with the Khmer Rouge and the Vietcong fighting over territory, and American B52s dropping bombs so close to her apartment that the walls shook.

At the time, Adelaide-born Ms Cox was also suffering internal turmoil.

Her fiancé had recently broken off their engagement, after finding out that she could not have children due to blocked fallopian tubes.

Ms Cox then looked for a different type of happiness through a hedonistic lifestyle, numerous affairs, and a high-flying international career in foreign affairs and banking.

But she never lost the desire to be a mother.

Cox finds life purpose in becoming ‘Big Mum’.

In the mid-1990s she returned to Cambodia to help as a volunteer in an orphanage for refugee children that had been set up by Princess Marie, wife of Prince Ranariddh who, in an uneasy coalition, was co-prime minister of the country with military strongman Hun Sen.

The youngsters loved the loud and funny Australian, who they called ‘Big Mum’.

“It was like a thunderbolt, ‘Oh Geraldine, this is why you couldn’t have your own children, this is what you’re supposed to be doing’,” she said.


But her life was soon in serious danger.

In 1997 Hun Sen mounted a bloody coup and the royal couple fled into exile.

Ms Cox found herself alone looking after the orphanage and on the wrong side of a highly volatile political fence.

The following year, the royals notified her that they were closing the orphanage and she was left with 70 children and nowhere to go.

She turned for help to the man she had considered a bitter enemy, now sole prime minister Hun Sen.

"Suddenly she found herself having to play very delicate politics," friend and supporter, television journalist Ray Martin, said.

"I don't think sell her soul, but I think within reason she was prepared to do anything for the kids and it's paid off in the end."

Remarkably, Hun Sen offered her Cambodian citizenship as well as 10 hectares of land and buildings, rent-free for 50 years, on which to establish a new orphanage.

Support for anti-institutional upbringing threatens facilities.

Today Ms Cox runs three Sunrise Children's Villages, including one specifically for HIV children as well as non-HIV children who have been abandoned by the rest of the family after their HIV parents died.

She has also recently been asked by the government to take over two more centres, and has started another non-residential education and sporting facility.

While some Western-run orphanages in Cambodia have been accused of corrupt and exploitative practices, Ms Cox's organisation is held above reproach.

She employs only Cambodian staff, the children are educated with many going on to university, and help is given to set them up in housing and employment as they reach adulthood. She also supports the local Buddhist and Khmer culture.

However, UNICEF now advocates that children should no longer be institutionalised in orphanages except as a last resort, and wants to see them returned to their families or placed in group homes or foster homes.

"I will do what I can to follow it, but not everything. Some of our children have been reintegrated, but very many have been disastrous and the kids have come back," Ms Cox said.

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In recent years she has nonetheless branched out into community welfare and infrastructure projects to help families stay together.


"She's gone into a children's pre-school centre. She's doing things like building wells in villages, she's fixing houses in villages, she's helping health and welfare centres in villages," Martin said.

"Without meaning to be an empire builder, that's what she's doing. And as she expands the empire ... she needs money."

Ms Cox says she needs $90,000 a month to keep her orphanages running.

"And I don't always have that, so it's continually on my mind," she said.

She said more funds were also needed to expand her community projects.

"She's got a team of fantastic people ... but so much depends on her charisma, and her dominance, and her power, and her energy that you wonder what happens when she doesn't have that energy anymore," Martin said.

Cox optimistic about finding new heir to empire.

Ms Cox does have some fears that her health could decline.

She had a successful double-mastectomy five years ago and, although now clear of cancer, she is sometimes concerned that it could return.

As yet she does not have an heir apparent.

"It is very easy in a place like Cambodia to get discouraged and fearful for the future ... but I'm a very optimistic person and I have every hope that in the end everything will be OK," she said.

"I have 40 children doing university degrees in Cambodia. I have had 10 children in Australia," she said.

"They are part of the next generation that's going to change Cambodia and that gives me huge satisfaction — I can see them striving to improve their country."

Watch Australian Story: Big Mum on ABC at 8:00pm.

This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished here with full permission. 
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