Orphan Statistics

About Orphan Statistics and International Adoption

Literature and popular media color much of our sense of orphans, but a closer look at orphan statistics is likely to change our views about exactly what an “orphan” is and what it means when one gets adopted.  Technically, an orphan is a young person who has lost both parents.  This might lead you to believe that an “orphanage” would be an institution where children bereaved of both parents reside.



The truth is, however, that orphanages have very few “true” orphans in them.  This is especially true of “orphanages” that are open to international adoption.  Most governments around the world, in fact, require that parents of children in orphanages open to international adoption sign away their parental rights at the time of adoption and will not allow children to be adopted without the signature of surviving parents.  This means that most international adoptions involve children who have at least one living parent.  Madonna’s African adoption some years ago, dramatically illustrated this situation when the father of the child wavered on whether to allow the American pop star to adopt his child.

In addition, most orphanages that are open to international adoption only take children that living parents bring to them.  Institutions adopt this rule to try to avoid having unscrupulous child traffickers manipulate the situation of unfortunates for their own gain.  Technically, most of the institutions that we call “orphanages” would be bettered termed “foundling hospitals,” as the first such institutions in England were termed.

Number of Orphans Worldwide

Orphan statistics are complicated to pin down even though they are fairly plentiful.  Since many orphans are in countries whose governmental infrastructures are deficient, getting down to the truth behind the statistics is difficult.  According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are around two hundred million orphans worldwide.  This staggering number needs some clarification however, as UNICEF defines orphans as children who have lost at least one parent, even if that child has not been abandoned by the surviving parent.

Causes of Child Abandonment

Orphan statistics, however, can help to uncover the truth behind some of our misconception about orphans.  What do orphan statistics tell us about the causes of child abandonment?

First, let’s consider the reason behind how orphans become orphans.  According to UNICEF, eighty percent of AIDS orphans—children who have had at least one parent die from AIDS—reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, where stigma and poor policies have lead to an acute problem.  In Africa, about two million children become orphans every year.

Most “orphans” however, are what are known as economic orphans, children who were abandoned because parents could not afford to raise them.  The term “orphan” here is barely recognizable since in most cases most parents remain living.  It is estimated that nearly four hundred thousand children were orphans before the recent earthquake in Haiti, the vast majority living in poorly regulated conditions in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.


In China, where there are an estimated twenty million orphans, the situation is dire.  Two thirds of all abandoned Chinese babies don’t survive into childhood because of the paucity of resources devoted to these institutions.

Statistics for orphans who age out of orphanages under such circumstances show that orphans fair little better than those entering it do.  Although these statistics are difficult to verify, they show that about one in eight orphans who age out of Russian and Ukrainian institutions commit suicide rather than facing the hardships that await them.  Those that do persevere fall to the lowest economic strata.  Two out of three girls become prostitutes and about the same amount of boys become involved in crime.

Despite these depressing statistics, about 250 thousand orphans are adopted every year--a small amount relative to the general population of orphans, but small ray of hope.