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Orphans by Thomas Kennington

An orphan (from the Greek ὀρφανός) is a child permanently bereaved of or abandoned by his or her parents. In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents is called an orphan. When referring to animals, only the mother's condition is usually relevant. If she has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father's condition. Adults can also be referred to as orphans, or "adult orphans".


Various groups use different definitions to identify orphans. One legal definition used in the United States is a minor bereft through "death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents".

In the common use, an orphan does not have any surviving parent to care for him or her. However, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), and other groups label any child that has lost one parent as an orphan. In this approach, a maternal orphan is a child whose mother has died, a paternal orphan is a child whose father has died, and a double orphan has lost both parents. This contrasts with the older use of half-orphan to describe children that had lost only one parent.

Adults can be called "Orphans" only if their parents died when they were children. It is a term generally reserved for children who lose their parents and are too young to care for themselves.


Orphans are relatively rare in developed countries, as most children can expect both of their parents to survive their childhood. Much higher numbers of orphans exist in war-torn nations such as Afghanistan.

Continent Number of
orphans (1000s)
Orphans as percentage
of all children
Africa 34,294 11.9%
65,504 6.5%
Latin America & Caribbean 8,166 7.4%
Total 107,964 7.6%
Country Orphans as % of all Children AID's Orphans as % of Orphans Total Orphans (Total) Total Orphans (AID's Related) Maternal (Total) Maternal (AID's Related) Paternal (Total) Paternal (AID's Related) Double (Total) Double (AID's Related)
Botswana (1990) 5.9 3.0 34,000 1,000 14,000 < 100 23,000 1,000 2,000 < 100
Botswana (1995) 8.3 33.7 52,000 18,000 19,000 7,000 37,000 13,000 5,000 3,000
Botswana (2001) 15.1 70.5 98,000 69,000 69,000 58,000 91,000 69,000 62,000 61,000
Lesotho (1990) 10.6 2.9 73,000 < 100 31,000 < 100 49,000 < 100 8,000 < 100
Lesotho (1995) 10.3 5.5 77,000 4,000 31,000 1,000 52,000 4,000 7,000 1,000
Lesotho (2001) 17.0 53.5 137,000 73,000 66,000 38,000 108,000 63,000 37,000 32,000
Malawi (1990) 11.8 5.7 524,000 30,000 233,000 11,000 346,000 23,000 55,000 6,000
Malawi (1995) 14.2 24.6 664,000 163,000 305,000 78,000 442,000 115,000 83,000 41,000
Malawi (2001) 17.5 49.9 937,000 468,000 506,000 282,000 624,000 315,000 194,000 159,000
Uganda (1990) 12.2 17.4 1,015,000 177,000 437,000 72,000 700,000 138,000 122,000 44,000
Uganda (1995) 14.9 42.4 1,456,000 617,000 720,000 341,000 1,019,000 450,000 282,000 211,000
Uganda (2001) 14.6 51.1 1,731,000 884,000 902,000 517,000 1,144,000 581,000 315,000 257,000

  • 2001 figures from 2002 UNICEF/UNAIDS report
  • China: A survey conducted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2005 showed that China has about 573,000 orphans below 18 years old.
  • Russia: An estimated 650,000 children are in Russian orphanages. Orphans are turned out of the orphanages at the age of 16, and the results are poor for most of them: 40% are homeless, 20% turn to crime, and 10% commit suicide.
  • Latin America: Street children have a major presence in Latin America; some estimate that there are as many as 40 million street children in Latin America. Although not all street children are orphans, all street children work and many do not have significant family support.

Notable orphans

Famous orphans include world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Andrew Jackson; the Muslim prophet Mohammed; writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, and Leo Tolstoy. The American orphan Henry Darger portrayed the horrible conditions of his orphanage in his art work. Other notable orphans include entertainment greats such as Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Ray Charles and Frances McDormand, and innumerable fictional characters in literature and comics.


Wars and great epidemics, such as AIDS, have created many orphans. World War Two, with its massive numbers of deaths and population movements created large numbers of orphans—with estimates for Europe ranging from 1,000,000 to 13,000,000. Judt (2006) estimates there were 9,000 orphaned children in Czechoslovakia, 60,000 in the Netherlands 300,000 in Poland and 200,000 in Yugoslavia, plus many more in the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

In literature

Mime offers food to the young Siegfried, an orphan he is raising; Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Richard Wagner's Siegfried

Orphaned characters are extremely common as literary protagonists, especially in children's and fantasy literature. The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more interesting and adventurous lives, by freeing them from familial obligations and controls, and depriving them of more prosaic lives. It creates characters that are self-contained and introspective and who strive for affection. Orphans can metaphorically search for self-understanding through attempting to know their roots. Parents can also be allies and sources of aid for children, and removing the parents makes the character's difficulties more severe. Parents, furthermore, can be irrelevant to the theme a writer is trying to develop, and orphaning the character frees the writer from the necessity to depict such an irrelevant relationship; if one parent-child relationship is important, removing the other parent prevents complicating the necessary relationship. All these characteristics make orphans attractive characters for authors.

Orphans are common in fairy tales, such as most variants of Cinderella.

A number of well-known authors have written books featuring orphans. Examples from classic literature include Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Among more recent authors, A. J. Cronin, Lemony Snicket, A. F. Coniglio, Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, as well as some less well-known authors of famous orphans like Little Orphan Annie have used orphans as major characters. One recurring storyline has been the relationship that the orphan can have with an adult from outside his or her immediate family as seen in Lyle Kessler's play Orphans.

In religious texts

Many religious texts, including the Bible and the Quran, contain the idea that helping and defending orphans is a very important and God-pleasing matter. Two of the most important religious leaders, Moses and Muhammad, were orphaned as children. Several scriptural citations describe how orphans should be treated:


  • "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan." ( Hebrew Bible, Exodus 22:22)
  • "Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me." (Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 49:11)
  • "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (The New Testament, James 1:27)


  • "And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive," - (The Quran, The Human: 8)
  • "Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness," (The Quran, The Morning Hours: 9)
  • "So woe to those who do prayer, and are forgetful of their prayer, those who show off and deny help to other." - (The Quran, Small Kindnesses: 1-7)
  • "(Be good to) orphans and the very poor. And speak good words to people." (The Quran, The Heifer: 83)
  • "…They will ask you about the property of orphans. Say, 'Managing it in their best interests is best'. If you mix your property with theirs, they are your brothers…" (The Quran, The Heifer: 220)
  • "Give orphans their property, and do not substitute bad things for good. Do not assimilate their property into your own. Doing that is a serious crime." (The Quran, The Women: 2)
  • "Keep a close check on orphans until they reach a marriageable age, then if you perceive that they have sound judgement hand over their property to them..." (The Quran, The Women: 6)
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