Why are There So Many Orphans in Our World?

Written by: Amanda McGinley, Whitney + Nick Runyon Photos by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Amanda McGinley, Whitney + Nick Runyon
Photos by: Whitney Runyon

Why are there so many orphans in our world?

This is a big question, one that multiple theses could be written and careers devoted. There are complexities and idiosyncrasies that we will struggle to comprehend for generations to come, but that doesn’t mean as mankind that we shouldn’t try. It is imperative that we try our best to know and understand these problems and how they affect vulnerable children, so that we may act appropriately and put an end to this crisis. Although the many problems can lead us to feel hopeless, we know that there is hope because of real change that we’ve witnessed firsthand.

So how did we get here? How did our world end up with 140 million+ vulnerable children?

Well, research shows that poverty is the number one offender. Yes, poverty. Let that sink in. Not death, not lack of love or care. Poverty.

Parents living in extreme poverty struggle to afford food, shelter, health care, and education for themselves and their children, and they often lack access to employment opportunities to improve their situation.  Additionally, parents living in poverty are more likely to become sick and less likely to be able to treat illnesses that can lead to death. At a larger level, many nations lack the social welfare infrastructure to help support children, families, and their community.  Many parents living in poverty have placed their children in orphanages, institutions, and group homes with the hope that their children will have a better future. Reader, this should break us. These parents love their children deeply, but they feel they cannot provide. And this is not unique to developing countries, there are even mothers in the U.S. who place their children for adoption because of poverty.

Death and disease proves to be the crisis’ second offender. Maternal mortality, or a mother’s death during childbirth, leads to thousands of orphans each year. Throughout history, disease has stolen the lives of countless parents, and continues to do so, disproportionately affecting the poor.  But with progress comes hope! We have seen improvements in medicine and the access people have to this medicine. Malaria meds alone save millions of lives each year, keeping children with their families.

However, it is HIV/AIDS that has had the greatest impact (in death and disease) in the orphan crisis. It has taken the lives of millions of parents, leading to millions of single orphans and disproportionate rates of double orphans. But please do not read this as a fault on the birth family. In many cultures and societies, HIV/AIDS was an unknown disease and education was not and is not available. Imagine you live in a culture where your husband has a disease, becomes ill, and dies. Because you are married and have had sexual relations, you have become infected. But now, because of your culture’s traditions, you are to marry your husband’s brother. Now you pass the disease to your new husband, who also has other wives and he passes it on to them. These women then become carriers and are able to pass it on to future children or husbands. It is also important to understand that people did not acquire HIV/AIDS because they were overtaken by passion and chose to practice unsafe sex while knowing the consequences. This is far from the truth.

Next is culture. The power of culture is strong, so strong that certain practices and pressures can lead to a child becoming orphaned. For example, men and women who are remarried may be forced to abandon their biological child if the new spouse refuses to care for the child from the previous marriage. Additionally, unwanted pregnancy, often linked to violence against women or pregnancy out of wedlock, may lead to significant cultural shame and the abandonment of children at birth. To add to the complexity, cultural indoiosycricies can be vastly different between countries, counties, and even neighboring towns or villages.

Another contributor is war. The reaches of war are vast, and often have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. As a result of combat or murder, war claims the lives of countless parents, leaving their children as orphans. Many women are raped during war, leading to unwanted pregnancies and abandoned children. And in the most abhorrent cases, children are forced to become soldiers for the very armies that killed their families. These children grow to be parents, unable to provide for their children emotionally, mentally, and/or physically.

Sadly, corruption has also played a role in creating this crisis. For example, government policy and corruption in communist Romania created the vast majority of orphans in the country. Also, the misguided and backfiring actions of the early orphan care movement(s) fostered an environment prone to corrupt behavior. Seeing an opportunity to make money, corrupt individuals and organizations removed children from their families to sell them in international adoptions for a profit. We discuss this more in our article on the international adoption boom, here.

Although we are separating and identifying some of these causes for the orphan crisis, all of the problems and causes are intrinsically linked; the effects of one spilling over onto another and vice versa. And just as they are all intrinsically linked to each other, they are all linked to greater complex histories and problems facing our world today. The actions of our past, our forefathers’ past, and those of our present have created problems that have led to the causes of the crisis.

What actions and issues, past and present, are these? There are countless pages written on these topics, and we know we can’t do justice to its summarization. But we feel we do the crisis, and those affected by it, an injustice by not mentioning historical events and present actions that have attributed to the plight of the orphan. To name a few: colonialism, the slave trade, globalization, cultural appropriation, foreign donor aid, and government corruption. We are all in some way linked to these actions and issues, whether through the actions of our ancestors, our governments that represent our interests, or through our own actions. It is important to be aware of how we may have contributed and continue to contribute to the root of these problems. This will help ensure that our future actions and work do not to exacerbate the causes of the crisis but instead contribute to its ending.

The information presented here is in no way comprehensive, but we hope that it can help us build our base knowledge about the complexities and reasons that a child becomes an orphan. The more knowledge we possess, the more that we can do to appropriately respond. As a whole, it may seem daunting, but each step forward is a victory. We must all come together and each focus on our strengths and passions, and hopefully one day future generations will be unable to fathom that this crisis once existed.

Up next, we will explore what has been done, the effects of those actions, and what is being done today.