153 million orphans. That is the number we hear as the catalyst to “do something.” What should we do? Where do all those children come from? Where are they all living?
The number of ‘orphans’ is slightly misleading to American ears. There are 153 million vulnerable children separated from their families globally, but this number is not indicative of children who have no living parents. Depending on the location, at least 80% have at least one living parent. Approximately 8 million live in institutional care while 100 million live on the streets. The primary cause for the separation of children and their family is poverty.
There are over 150 million children not living with their parents because of poverty.
Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) care is a nuanced and difficult topic. There is not one solution to a complex problem, and I can speak only from what I have learned and what I have experienced here, in Zambia.
65% of children in Zambia live in poverty, or less than $1.90 a day, many of them living on less than $1 a day. A Jesuit organization in Zambia that provides a monthly analysis on the basic cost of living (not including health care, education costs, clothing, bedding, transportation, etc.) estimates the need at over $300 for a family with 3 children and two wage-earners. Living on about $120 a month is not possible (especially as most households do not have 2 wage-earners and only 3 dependents).
The HIV/AIDs epidemic has wrecked havoc on the culture of Zambia. OVC care was not a necessary part of life prior to this disease, despite poverty, simply because formal and informal kinship care provided family for children who lost parents or needed help. HIV in Zambia is a difficult problem. It is primarily transmitted heterosexually. The biggest risk factor for women is getting married (not prostitution or promiscuity). While the national average of infection has decreased to 14%, there are still over 1.2 million people living with the disease and just over half are receiving medical treatment for the disease.
The depth of impact that HIV has had on Zambia is too broad to be addressed, but relating specifically to the orphan crisis, there are millions of missing parents and caregivers because of the disease. The economic impact is difficult to measure because it is so vast. The cultural norms that allowed extended family to absorb vulnerable children into family units has been taxed beyond capacity because of this disease.
(ART therapy is amazing and saves lives. Only about 65% of infected adults and only 52% of infected children are receiving treatment. Before you make judgements, realize that to access the treatment requires at least one full day of effort every month for each patient. There are also costs involved of transport to the clinic or facility. The medication is extremely hard on the body and the health of the individual: extra nutrition is needed, more rest is required, and good hygiene is imperative. Our last visit with clients to get the medication also resulted in over US$60 in additional medicine needed for related issues in two clients. These things are all difficult, if not impossible, when living in poverty. )
47% of children in Zambia are stunted. That means they don’t get enough to eat. Only 11% of toddlers receive the minimum diet for their age. Over half of the population in Zambia is under the age of 18. And they are hungry.
What does all this mean? It means that there are thousands of children in Zambia who are not receiving an adequate diet, education, and health care. What does that mean about orphan care and orphanages?
The orphan “crisis” is real, but it’s not a crisis of children with no family. It is a crisis of poverty, death and disease. It is a crisis that affects more than just children. However, orphanages are not the ultimate solution. They are a stop-gap measure that has not brought about the change and the answer to this crisis that so many were hoping.
Statistics have clearly shown that institutions are not healthy for children. Children who grow up in these settings are more likely to be in prison as adults, commit suicide, not complete their education, not assimilate into society, and to have children who are then raised outside intact family units. More than the statistics, orphanage settings are not what God has designed as the best place for children to live.
It is also worth discussing the fact that most countries have phased out orphanages and institutional care for these reasons. Foster care, kinship care, and community care have become the (imperfect) standards for caring for OVCs in most developed nations. Even funded foster care, while being better for a child emotionally, spiritually, physically, and educationally, costs anywhere from only 10-50% compared to institutional care.
(The argument that children are better off in ‘Christian orphanages’ is specious and condescending. It negates the sovereignty of God in determining where that child was born and into which family. It assumes that those ‘Christian orphanages’ are good places, and that has not been the case historically. The inference that ‘Christian orphanages’ will create Christ-followers is not any more valid than thinking that a ‘Christian home’ will produce the same. This also assumes that our human inventions are better than God’s plans for accomplishing His will.)
So, should we close all the orphanages?
(The short answer: Please don't! The long answer is coming.)