The facts and statistics surrounding the Global Orphan Crisis can be hard to understand and easily misinterpreted. This can lead to misinformed advocacy efforts and poor policy making, even by those with the best intentions.
This straight-forward article is designed to ‘clear up the confusion’ when it comes to global orphan statistics.
As it stands there are currently 150 million ‘orphans’ in the world. When I first heard that statistic, I thought to myself, “That can’t be right?” And in fact, it isn’t. Well, not according to how most of us in ‘developed’ countries would tend to think about ‘orphans’ – as a child with no remaining parents (referred to as a ‘double orphan’) – because this number also includes those children who have lost just one parent and remain with the parent still surviving (referred to as a ‘single orphan’).
The reasons for such ‘confusing counting’ has its origins in the HIV/AIDs pandemic, which began taking the lives of millions of parents from the mid-1990s onwards, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where the global orphan crisis is at its worst. We will expand on this and more later, but for now what is important to realise is the following:
How we conceptualise and understand the ‘Global Orphan Crisis’ – and work towards policies and strategies for protection and development that have at their heart the best interests of the orphaned child – is perhaps one of the most difficult and contested issues in global development today.
I know for a fact (having worked for several of the following NGOs) that even the world’s leading development agencies, agencies like Save the Children, World Vision, Compassion, Oxfam and UNICEF, all struggle to design and implement strategies that are effective at reaching children who are often ‘unreachable’ programmatically speaking.
Orphaned children are often ‘unreachable’ because they fall ‘outside’ the relatively stable and defined structures of ‘family’ and ‘community’ that most development efforts target with the added necessary requirements of being able to ensure ongoing training, capacity-building and follow-up monitoring and evaluation.
Before we go any further, let’s dig into the statistics surrounding the ‘Global Orphan Crisis’ in an attempt to make sense of how they might be most useful, whilst avoiding some of the more commonly made mistakes around their interpretation and application.
Understanding the statistics
1.) Why do statistics on ‘orphans’ include those who have ‘only lost one parent?’
It might be offensive to some single parents to learn that children with only one parent are labeled ‘orphans’ according to the global statistics. But here’s why this is the case. Since the begging of the global HIV/AIDs pandemic, due to the nature of the spread of the virus, a child left with a surviving parent is often under the care of an individual who is also carrying the virus and whose health and survival is often seriously compromised as a result.
Furthermore, in developing countries, where the overwhelming majority of orphaned children live and reside, losing even one parent is a significant blow to that child’s potential to access even the most basic of rights to education, healthcare, food and shelter.
Adding to this, when the parent who passes away is the father, families often lose their primary ‘breadwinner’. And in many traditional societies where the male is seen as the ‘head of the household’, a family’s ability to perform important cultural tasks and functions – including the marrying-off of children and managing of debts and loans – is also greatly hampered.
All of this leads to a documented increase in the likelihood that orphans – even those with a single parent remaining – are less likely to attend school and more likely to be involved in child-marriages or engaged in child labour.
- HIV/AIDs claimed the life of a parent for three out of four ‘single orphan’ orphans in Sub-Saharan African countries including Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
- In South Asia, an orphaned child is one-third less likely to attend school compared to a non-orphaned child.
- In the Congo, a non-orphaned child is 50% more likely to attend school than an orphan child.
2.) Who is not being counted
Whilst the number of orphans worldwide might seem ‘inflated’ because of the inclusion of so many ‘single orphans’, the reality is that there are actually millions of orphans not included by these statistics. This is due to the limitations of demographic surveying techniques that only include those children living in households.
This means that some of the most vulnerable children – including those living in orphanages, on the streets, trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation, or recruited into armed forces – are in fact not counted for in these numbers.
- NOT COUNTED – the estimated 150 million street children, many of whom may be ‘double orphans’ or are living as ‘social orphans’ (with no connection to family or support structures).
- NOT COUNTED – the estimated 1.2 million children trafficked each year. Orphans without the protection of their parents are an ‘easy target’ for traffickers.
- NOT COUNTED – the tens of thousands of children recruited and forced to fight as child soldiers, many after seeing their own families killed by the same forces that then recruit them.
3.) Where is the ‘Global Orphan Crisis’ worst?
Sub-Saharan Africa has both the highest number and highest share of orphaned children in the world, followed by South Asia. Crucial to note is that whilst the ‘developed’ world represents around one-sixth of the total population, only 10% of the world’s orphans reside there.
4.) What are the factors fuelling this crisis?
There are many reasons why a child might become orphaned. However, it is often the coming together of one or several of the following factors that create the situations necessary for such a tragedy to occur:
- Poverty – Above all else, poverty overwhelming increases the likelihood of children becoming orphaned because parents are both more likely to get sick and less likely to be able to treat illnesses. At a macro-level, impoverished nations lack the social welfare structures found in ‘developed nations’ that enable families to support themselves to remain together. In Sierra Leone, 99% of orphaned children did not receive any form of external assistance.
- HIV/AIDS – Globally, HIV/AIDs is responsible for almost 20 million child orphans, of which 15 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDs not only leads to single-parent orphans, but contributes disproportionally to double-parent orphans due to how the disease is transferred. In Zimbabwe and Lesotho, HIV/AIDs accounts for the death of both parents for nine out of ten ‘double-orphans’.
- Maternal Mortality – Mothers dying during childbirth leaves hundreds of thousands of children as orphans each year. In Rwanda, a mother has a 1 in 60 chance of dying during childbirth.
- Unwanted pregnancy – This occurs as a result of many complex factors but is often linked to violence against women or pregnancy outside of wedlock, leading to significant cultural shame and therefore pregnancies are kept secret and babies are abandoned at birth.
- War and Conflict – It’s not just parents dying as a result of combat between armed forces that leaves children orphaned. Often, as in the case of some of the most heinous and abhorrent conflicts in our world, the murdering of parents in front of children has been documented as a deliberate tactic employed by militias aimed at causing the disintegration of a society’s fabric. In Uganda, cases have been reported whereby the rebel group known as the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’, led by Joseph Kony, forced children to kill their own parents before recruiting them as child soldiers.
Understanding what can be done
It’s easy to take these overwhelming statistics at face-value and declare with passion that, “Something must be done to help all of these poor orphans!”
But as UNICEF point outs, one of the greatest challenges in tackling such an emotive issue is that on seeing the term ‘orphan’, well-meaning individuals, organisations and even entire governments, can often rush towards solutions focused on, “providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.”
If we stop for long enough to look at the data available and examine exactly what it is that is being measured, three things become clear:
- Millions of orphaned children still live with one parent
- Millions of children who currently live on the streets or have become separated from their families due to forced labour, war or natural disasters, still have the chance to be re-unified with family or original communities
- Millions of children are not able to live with extended families or in their original communities and do require other forms of alternative care
Understanding these three truths allows us to rank the options and strategies available for assisting orphaned children from ‘most preferential’ to ‘least preferential’.
(Notice I didn’t say from ‘best’ to ‘worse’ because when done in the best interest of the child, and when each option is entertained only as the option prior to it is exhausted, each of the following options is a valid and appropriate way for ensuring that the needs and rights of orphaned children are met.)
A hierarchy for orphan care:
- Family preservation – Children can be prevented from becoming orphans through sustainable community development targeted at improving the overall health standards, food security and livelihoods of individuals and communities. When tragedies strike, especially those involving the loss of a parent, surviving parents and extended family members must be counselled immediately and provided with rapid assistance to ensure their confidence in providing continuing care of children.
- Family reunification – More funding needs to go towards efforts to locate, identify and return children back to families. When separation has occurred as a result of trafficking or exploitation, efforts must be made to ensure that children are properly rehabilitated and that their transition back into their community is safe and carried out with ongoing supervision.
- Adoption – When children cannot remain with their natural family, adoption into another safe, permanent and loving family is an appropriate response. Again within this option there is a ‘hierarchy of preferences’ that starts off by seeking out a family from a child’s existing extended familyand community circles, followed by a family from that child’s country of birth, and finally, a family found through a well-monitored and regulated system of international adoption.
Whilst some strongly disagree with the way that such statistics are compiled, and with the labeling of the current situation as a ‘Global Orphan Crisis’ – because they fear the confusion its emotive nature can create – I don’t disagree.
The reality is that there are millions of orphaned children in our world today who deserve nothing less than our greatest efforts. They are the most vulnerable and marginalised group throughout all our society.
For those of us who do understand and can interpret the numbers correctly (as I hope we have been able to help you to do), rather than criticising the well-intentioned efforts of those who are moved by more evocative images and stories of ‘the orphan’, we should instead encourage their advocacy efforts whilst responding with strategies and policies that take into account the ‘hard’ realities of the statistics and what they reveal to us.
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REFERENCES: All data was compiled from the following sources unless otherwise noted.