Invisible Children

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

Orphans and Abandoned Children


For various reasons and causes, over 153 million children worldwide are labeled as orphans, having lost one or both parents.[i]  Of that, 18 million have lost both parents. [ii]  Millions more have been abandoned.[iii]  But, of the eight million children now living in orphanages, as many as 90% by some estimates are not truly orphaned.  Institutionalization occurs because their families lack the resources to care for them, one parent might be dead, the child has a disability, has suffered abuse, or is from an oppressed ethnic minority. [iv]  

While the AIDS pandemic has played a role in these figures, AIDS orphans still remain the minority of those robbed of their parents, constituting no more than a third of all orphans.[v]  High mortality from conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis, pregnancy complications, in addition to HIV/AIDS, and natural disasters are responsible for the large and increasing number of orphans and abandoned children.[vi]

This particular group of vulnerable young people faces grave obstacles.  According to an analysis of 75 separate studies encompassing more than 3,800 children in nineteen countries, children raised in orphanages have an IQ 20 points lower than their peers in foster care.[vii]  It is not surprising that orphans and abandoned children are at an increased risk of suffering psychological distress, economic hardship, exploitation, trafficking and HIV infection.[viii]  Moreover, the majority of orphans live in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeastern Asia, in countries with rankings of medium and low[ix] on the Human Development Index.[1]

Some studies have emerged in recent years indicating that children in institutionalized care as a whole suffer no more than orphaned or abandoned children in community-based care.[x]  At best, this is damning with faint praise.  Some countries, such as Colombia, place a high premium on their quality of care for orphaned or abandoned children.  Institutions in these countries tend to raise the curve in generalized studies.  But other countries have neither the resources nor the will to provide nurturing care for those without parents or stable home lives.   It must be noted, too, that there can be a marked difference between government-run institutions, private institutions, and community-run institutions.  A Duke University study monitoring the quality of care in institutions for abandoned children made no such distinction in their final assessments, and, in post-survey discussions, admitted that government-run institutions provided much lower levels of care than community-based models.[xi]

Even a cursory look at where these children are and how they live shows the immense loss of human potential as we fail to nurture them in their distinctive circumstances.   In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, more than 75 % of child domestic workers are single or double orphans.[xii]   In parts of Zimbabwe, 65% of children engaged in commercial sex and 56% of children living on the streets are orphans.[xiii]  In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 5% of those under the age of 18 are orphans.[xiv]


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[1] The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices used to rank countries into four tiers of human development.   It was created by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and the Indian economist Amartya Sen in 1990 and is published by the United Nations Development Program.
[i] Thielman, N. et al. (2012).  Correlates of Poor Health among Orphans and Abandoned Children in Less Wealthy Countries: The Importance of Caregiver Health. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38109. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038109
[ii] UNICEF Orphan Estimates, 2013, cf. http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/16/opinion/international-adoption-tarikuwa-lemma-stolen-children/
[iii] Thielman, N. et al. (2012).  Correlates of Poor Health among Orphans and Abandoned Children in Less Wealthy Countries: The Importance of Caregiver Health. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38109. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038109
[iv] Mulheir, Georgette, CEO, Lumos, www.wearelumos.org/the-problem.
[v] UNICEF. (2012). State of the World's Children Report 2012. New York: UNICEF, p. 103, http://www.unicef.org/sowc2012/pdfs/SOWC-2012-Main-Report_EN_21Dec2011.pdf
[vi] Thielman, N. et al. (2012).  Correlates of Poor Health among Orphans and Abandoned Children in Less Wealthy Countries: The Importance of Caregiver Health. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38109. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038109
[vii] H. van iJzendoorn, M., P.C. M. Luijk, M., & Juffer, F. (2008). IQ of Children Growing Up in Children's Homes A Meta-Analysis on IQ Delays in Orphanages . Merrill-Palmer Quarterly , 54, 341-366.
[viii] Huang, L., & Panza, A. (2006). Characteristics and impact of support to orphans and vulnerable children in Northern Thailand: A Secondary analysis of Thailand multiple indicator cluster survery. Journal of Health Research, 16. http://cphs.healthrepository.org/bitstream/123456789/1446/1/Thesis_Lu%20Huang2008.pdf
[ix] Kathryn Whetten et al, 2009.  A Comparison of the Wellbeing of Orphans and Abandoned Children Ages 6-12 in Institutional and Community-Based Care Settings in 5 Less Wealthy Nations.  PLoS ONE, Volume 4: Issue 12, December 2009
[x] Kathryn Whetten et al, 2009.  A Comparison of the Wellbeing of Orphans and Abandoned Children Ages 6-12 in Institutional and Community-Based Care Settings in 5 Less Wealthy Nations.  PLoS ONE, Volume 4: Issue 12, December 2009; and Denise Grady, “Study Suggests Orphanages Are Not So Bad,” New York Times, December 18 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/health/research/18child.html
[xi] Kathryn Whetten, Conversation with author Maya Ajmera
[xii] UNICEF. (2004). Framework for the Protection, Support and Care of Orphans and Vulnerable Children Living in a World with HIV and AIDS. New York: UNICEF, p. 9, cf. Kifle, A. (2002). Ethiopia: Child Domestic Workers in Addis Ababa: A Rapid Assessment. ILO, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor. Geneva: ILO, p. 19
[xiii] UNICEF. (2004). Framework for the Protection, Support and Care of Orphans and Vulnerable Children Living in a World with HIV and AIDS. New York: UNICEF, p. 9.
[xiv] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children 2006: Africa’s Orphaned Generation,” 2006, p. 9, http://www.unicef.org/sowc06/pdfs/africas_orphans.pdf

Demographics of Invisibility