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Excluded children: The situation of orphans and abandoned children worldwide

Excluded children 

The situation of orphans and children without parental care in a cross-section of countries.  Orphans and children without parental care need a very specific form of protection and care. In spite of this, they are all but doomed to have their special needs ignored and their rights abused in many cases.

Haiti boyThe status of orphans and their chances of survival and development are also a measure of the general shape of social, political and economic conditions in a state and society. It can generally be said that in some parts and in certain regions of the world, things are, to a certain extent, changing for the better for children without parental care. At the same time however, there is no reason to be complacent - on the contrary. The sheer numbers themselves are shocking. There is no reliable overall figure for all the orphans in the world, but UNICEF offers a rough estimate of 163 million children who can be considered orphans. However, this also includes children who still have one parent with whom they often live. In many countries there are no statistical surveys at all relating to children without parental care, which in itself indicates that these children receive no - or only inadequate - support: their existence is concealed, and there is no serious political sense of urgency to do anything to improve their situation.

The fact is that millions and millions of children all over the world are forced to grow up without parental care, whether as full orphans or without one of their parents, or because their families are not in a position to look after their children. In the following report, we look at a range of countries  in different continents to clearly document the various reasons for losing the family of origin; which alternative forms of care are in place (or not); the social status children without parental care enjoy, or rather have to endure; and the extent to which the often critical living conditions of orphans and children without parental care reflect the general position of children’s rights in the country in question.

Why children become orphans

Countries in southern Africa top the global statistics in terms of the number of children without parental care and orphans. The main reason for this negative record is HIV/AIDS, closely linked to widespread poverty. The situation is worst in Swaziland, where the estimates for 2010 are 200,000 out of a population of just over a million. In Zambia the number of orphans has doubled in ten years, and now lies at a million. In Zimbabwe, too, an estimated two million children will have to struggle through life in 2010 without parents. And HIV/AIDS is also quickly becoming the main reason for children becoming orphans in other countries as well, even though not to the extent of sub-Saharan Africa.SOS Social Centre Ennerdale South Africa

The reasons are more diverse in countries on other continents, yet in the majority of cases poverty and its associated effects are directly or indirectly the determining factor. This also means that a large number of children still have at least one or both parents. In Sri Lanka for instance, only 8% of all children without parental care are complete orphans, which is entirely representative of many other countries. The “classic” reasons why parents cannot care for their children are conflict within the family and divorce, drug or alcohol dependency, illness, violence and abuse, legal disputes, accidents, and unemployment. In countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal however, violent conflicts also play a role in the loss of family protection. In remote areas of Nepal for instance, there are even orphanages run by Maoists for children of rebels who have been killed. There are no confirmed figures for Sri Lanka detailing how many children lost their parents over the years of the civil war there. Specific reasons for the loss of parents or family care are particularly noticeable in individual countries: migration caused by a lack of job opportunities; domestic violence against women and children and the feminization of poverty (in Nicaragua for example); a sharp rise in cancer-related illness, and a significantly high number of car accidents, as in Mongolia; a huge increase in acts of violence, as in Venezuela (13,000 murders in 2007); or neglect, and the failure to fulfil parental responsibilities as is the case in Russia where an estimated 700,000 to a million children live without parental care. Added to which there are natural disasters which make children orphans and conspicuously often affect precisely those sections of the population which already have to struggle to survive at the lowest end of the social scale.

Often inadequate alternative care

Child from Vilnuis, LithuaniaJust about every country in the world has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is also reflected in legislation and government initiatives for the protection of children. Meanwhile there are also recommendations and packages of measures such as the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (to which SOS Children’s Villages made a significant contribution), which define the clear rules and standards for a high-quality, child-oriented alternative form of care outside the family of origin that takes account of the interests of each individual child. In reality however, care practice in many areas is miles away from these recommendations, even to the extreme case of a child having no home at all and no carer.

Many countries do in fact try to ensure a minimum standard in care facilities, but often there are not enough material resources and staffing, nor are there the necessary mechanisms to monitor the quality of care. Frequently the sole response to the loss of the family of origin is in the traditional form of institutional care of children in homes or orphanages. Family-based models (e.g. fostering, small family-based care units such as SOS Children’s Villages, adoption) are isolated phenomena. Because of the sheer number of orphans, in southern Africa in particular, the most widely used form of care is „arranged“ informally, that is, by care within the extended family or by members of the community. In a great number of cases however, the family units (grandparents, older children acting as head of the family) have scarcely enough resources to provide the children even with the bare necessities. Institutional care facilities like children’s homes are certainly increasing rapidly in countries like Zimbabwe, but there is a serious lack of adequate infrastructure, appropriate qualifications in the child development staff and child protection measures. In many instances, any financial and advisory support or quality control from government is either inadequate or non-existant.

In countries of the former Soviet Union, where home care was a standard and the state often positioned itself as the better educator, de-institutionalization processes are now underway (large institutions being replaced by care units structured on a small scale, ideally based on family systems). So in Ukraine for example, a sharp increase in foster families and family-style care facilities can be detected, as well as full-scale commitment on the part of the state to put the legal position of orphans at the top of the priority list. On the other hand there is no access to information about whether and to what extent these forms of care are successful and about quality standards as defined in the UN Guidelines for instance and as monitored by state authorities. In Kazakhstan, where the custody of children without parental care is for the most part undertaken by relatives (a total of around 47,000 children without parental care) 13,156 children are still in institutional care, as opposed to 932 in family-based forms of care. Then again in Russia which has a large number of care models, including family-based ones, there were over 2,000 institutions for around 162,000 children in 2008, from baby units to residential homes and the controversial military schools which even take in children as young as seven. Privately run facilities represent a dwindling proportion in Russia, where the state continues to be the most important agent in the out-of-family care sector, alongside the care provided by relatives. On the fringes of Russian society however thousands of children and young people live on the streets, a fate they share with many other children in countries across the globe, including Venezuela.

Orphans suffer serious disadvantage

The exposed life on the streets - recognized as being extremely dangerous - is the last stop for a child who cannot live Street childrenin his or her family of origin. But children without a biological family who are cared for in some form, also run the risk of a life which holds fewer possibilities for healthy development and a supportive environment than that of their peers with families. The range of threats is wide, from extreme neglect (lack of access to education, medical care, a balanced diet, etc.) to social stigmatization and marginalization and the fact that the loss of a family represents a serious trauma that stays with a person throughout his or her life - and can potentially be seriously damaging if the person has not had any support in coping with it in childhood. Basically it can be proven that orphans are forced to suffer severe forms of discrimination: their inheritance can be withheld and the biological  children of foster parents given preference within the extended family; they can be forced to suffer violence, exploitation, and abuse ; decisions are made about their future in which they have no say at all; they can experience limited opportunities in education and training; in the case of under-age girls in Nepal, they can be married too early; or they can be released from care when they reach the legal age and not know where to go.

The stigma of being abandoned

An aura of misfortune clings to orphan children, even if many feel deep compassion for orphaned and abandoned children and would like to do something to help them. The real-life situation for many millions of children without parental care remains unaffected by all this however. The social perception and stereotype that orphans will not get on in life and fail to cope has a disastrous effect on the overall responsibility of society for its weakest members. This can take extreme forms, as in Nepal where children are often blamed for the death of their parents, or less obvious ones like the basic attitude that it is the state’s job to take care of it.

A lack of direction, inadequate care, ignorance, and discrimination can make the trauma experienced by orphans more intense and ultimately ensure that they really do not succeed.