Orphan statistics explained
UNICEF’s statement that there are 163 million orphans worldwide has been widely misinterpreted as meaning that 163 million children are in need of new adoptive families. Many Westerners imagine that a significant number of these adoptable children are healthy infants and toddlers.
But it’s not so. UNICEF’s statistic includes what it calls “single orphans”—children who have lost one parent. As of 2007, roughly 18.5 million of these “orphans” had lost both parents. That is, of course, still a heartbreakingly large number. However, most of those are living with extended family, and are not in need of adoption, or are older than five, sick, or disabled in some way. As UNICEF’s statement below puts it, “Evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or other family member. 95 per cent of all orphans are over the age of five.”
For more information, see UNICEF’s position statements on orphans and on intercountry adoption online or below:
UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. By this definition there were over 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. This large figure represents not only children who lost both parents, but also those who lost a father but have a surviving mother or lost their mother but have a surviving father.
Of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans that year, 13 million lost both parents. Evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent grandparent, or other family member. 95 per cent of all orphans are over the age of five.
This definition contrasts with concepts of orphan in many industrialized countries, where a child must have lost both parents to qualify as an orphan. UNICEF and numerous international organizations adopted the broader definition of orphan in the mid-1990s as the AIDS pandemic began leading to the death of millions of parents worldwide, leaving an ever increasing number of children growing up without one or more parents. So the terminology of a ‘single orphan’–the loss of one parent–and a ‘double orphan’–the loss of both parents–was born to convey this growing crisis.
However, this difference in terminology can have concrete implications for policies and programming for children. For example, UNICEF’s ‘orphan’ statistic might be interpreted to mean that globally there are 163 million children in need of a new family, shelter, or care. This misunderstanding may then lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.
In keeping with this and the agency’s commitment to adapt to the evolving realities of the AIDS crisis, UNICEF commissioned an analysis of population household surveys across 36 countries. Designed to compare current conditions of orphans and non-orphans, the global analysis suggests we should further expand our scope, focusing less on the concept of orphanhood and more on a range of factors that render children vulnerable. These factors include the family's ownership of property, the poverty level of the household, the child’s relationship to the head of the household, and the education level of the child’s parents, if they are living.
In UNICEF’s experience, these are the elements that can help identify both children and their families–whether this term includes living parents, grandparents or other relatives–who have the greatest need for our support.
UNICEF has received many enquiries from families hoping to adopt children from countries other than their own. UNICEF believes that all decisions relating to children, including adoptions, should be made with the best interests of the child as the primary consideration. The Hague Convention on International Adoptions is an important development, for both adopting families and adopted children, because it promotes ethical and transparent processes, undertaken in the best interests of the child. UNICEF urges national authorities to ensure that, during the transition to full implementation of the Hague Convention, the best interests of each individual child are protected.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guides UNICEF’s work, clearly states that every child has the right to know and be cared for by his or her own parents, whenever possible. Recognizing this, and the value and importance of families in children’s lives, UNICEF believes that families needing support to care for their children should receive it, and that alternative means of caring for a child should only be considered when, despite this assistance, a child’s family is unavailable, unable or unwilling to care for him or her.
For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate alternative family environment should be sought in preference to institutional care which should be used only as a last resort and as a temporary measure. Inter-country adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution. In each case, the best interests of the individual child must be the guiding principle in making a decision regarding adoption.
Over the past 30 years, the number of families from wealthy countries wanting to adopt children from other countries has grown substantially. At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children, takes center stage. Abuses include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and bribery.
Many countries around the world have recognized these risks, and have ratified the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption. UNICEF strongly supports this international legislation, which is designed to put into action the principles regarding inter-country adoption which are contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These include ensuring that adoption is authorized only by competent authorities, that inter-country adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that inter-country adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it. These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal and detrimental practices.
The case of children separated from their parents and communities during war or natural disasters merits special mention. It cannot be assumed that such children have neither living parents nor relatives. Even if both their parents are dead, the chances of finding living relatives, a community and home to return to after the conflict subsides exist. Thus, such children should not be considered for inter-country adoption, and family tracing should be the priority. This position is shared by UNICEF, UNHCR, the International Confederation of the Red Cross, and international NGOs such as the Save the Children Alliance.
NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.
© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.
Last page update: February 23, 2011