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​​​​​1.4 The Plight of Orphans

The UNICEF Report “Children on the Brink – 2004” * has estimated that, by the end of 2003,  there were 143 million orphans ages 0 through 17 years old in 93 countries of sub Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.  The UNICEF Report includes a breakdown by country (refer Bookmark in the report or go to page 28 onwards) and a breakdown by age (refer Bookmark in the report or go to page 14). 

*For updated statistics visit the website:​

The report goes on to say that globally, this is only a 3 percent increase in the number of orphans since 1990. Were it not for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the percentage of children who are orphans would be expected to decline as improvements in health, nutrition, and overall development lead to a decrease in adult mortality. Unfortunately, in countries where HIV/AIDS has hit hardest, this trend has been reversed, with both the percentage of children who are orphans and the absolute number of children who are orphaned rising dramatically. In just two years, from 2001 to 2003, the global number of orphans due to AIDS increased from 11.5 million to 15 million (estimate range, 13–18 million). Every day, about 1,700 children become infected with HIV.  There are an estimated 2.1 million children under age 15 (estimate range, 1.9–2.5 million) living with HIV in the world today. In 2003, about 630,000 children under age 15 (570,000–740,000) became infected. While adolescents become infected with HIV primarily through unprotected sexual activity, infants are infected during their mother’s pregnancy, labour, or delivery, or while breastfeeding.

Effects of life in an institution

Surveys consistently show that many children in residential institutions have at least one living parent or relative. In many parts of the world, impoverished families sometimes use “orphanages” as an economic-coping mechanism to secure access to services or better material conditions for their children.

Orphanages, children’s villages, or other group residential facilities may seem a logical response to growing orphan populations. In fact, according to the UNICEF report this approach can impede the development of national solutions for orphans and other vulnerable children. Such institutions may be appealing because they can provide food, clothing, and education, but they generally fail to meet young people’s emotional and psychological needs.

Traditional residential institutions usually have too few caregivers and are therefore limited in their capacity to provide children the affection, attention, personal identity, and social connections that families and communities can offer. The developmental risks for children can include inappropriate demanding of attention, withdrawal, destructive and cruel behaviour to self or others, lack of sense of morality and rules. Difficulty in learning can be substantially heightened in institutional settings. 

Institutional care tends to segregate children and adolescents by age and sex and from other young people and adults in their communities. Instead of encouraging independence and creative thinking, institutional life tends to facilitate dependency and discourage autonomy. For many adolescents, the transition from life in an institution to positive integration and self-support as a young adult in the community is difficult. They lack essential social and cultural skills and a network of connections in the community. In most developing countries, the extended family and community are still the most important safety nets, and disconnection from these support systems greatly increases an orphan’s long-term vulnerability. Poorly prepared to integrate into community life, and with little knowledge of potential risks and how to protect themselves, these young people may feel hopeless and depressed and become involved in harmful activities.​