Last updated
Orphans by Thomas Kennington, oil on canvas, 1885 Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans.jpg
Orphans by Thomas Kennington, oil on canvas, 1885

An orphan (from the Greek : ορφανός, romanized: orphanós) [1] is a child whose parents have died. [2] [3]


In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents due to death is called an orphan. When referring to animals, only the mother's condition is usually relevant (i.e. if the female parent has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father's condition). [4]


Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and his sisters Princesses Francisca and Januaria wearing mourning clothes after the death of their father Pedro I in 1834. Their mother, Maria Leopoldina, had died a couple of years before, in 1826. Pedro II of Brazil and his sisters.jpg
Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and his sisters Princesses Francisca and Januária wearing mourning clothes after the death of their father Pedro I in 1834. Their mother, Maria Leopoldina, had died a couple of years before, in 1826.
Orphan on mother's grave by Uros Predic in 1888. Uros Predic - Siroce.jpg
Orphan on mother's grave by Uroš Predić in 1888.

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". [5]

In the common use, an orphan does not have any surviving parent to care for them. However, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), and other groups label any child who 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 is a child/teen/infant who has lost both parents. [6] This contrasts with the older use of half-orphan to describe children who had lost only one parent. [7]


An Afghan girl at a Kabul, Afghanistan orphanage in January 2002 Girl in a Kabul orphanage, 01-07-2002.jpg
An Afghan girl at a Kabul, Afghanistan orphanage in January 2002

Orphans are relatively rare in developed countries, because 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.

ContinentNumber of
orphans (1000s)
Orphans as percentage
of all children
Latin America & Caribbean8,1667.4%
CountryOrphans as % of all childrenAIDS orphans as % of orphansTotal orphansTotal orphans (AIDS related)Maternal (total)Maternal (AIDS related)Paternal (total)Paternal (AIDS related)Double (total)Double (AIDS related)
Botswana (1990)5.93.034,0001,00014,000< 10023,0001,0002,000< 100
Botswana (1995)8.333.755,00018,00019,0007,00037,00013,0005,0003,000
Botswana (2001)15.170.598,00069,00069,00058,00091,00069,00062,00061,000
Lesotho (1990)10.62.973,000< 10031,000< 10049,000< 1008,000< 100
Lesotho (1995)10.35.577,0004,00031,0001,00052,0004,0007,0001,000
Lesotho (2001)17.053.5137,00073,00066,00038,000108,00063,00037,00032,000
Malawi (1990)11.85.7524,00030,000233,00011,000346,00023,00055,0006,000
Malawi (1995)14.224.6664,000163,000305,00078,000442,000115,00083,00041,000
Malawi (2001)17.549.9937,000468,000506,000282,000624,000315,000194,000159,000
Uganda (1990)12.217.41,015,000177,000437,00072,000700,000138,000122,00044,000
Uganda (1995)14.942.41,456,000617,000720,000341,0001,019,000450,000282,000211,000
Uganda (2001)14.651.11,731,000884,000902,000517,0001,144,000581,000315,000257,000


Notable orphans

Famous orphans include world leaders such as Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, and Pedro II of Brazil; writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy; and athletes such as Aaron Hernandez. 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, epidemics (such as AIDS), pandemics, and poverty [15] have led to many children becoming orphans. The Second World War (1939-1945), with its massive numbers of deaths and vast population movements, left large numbers of orphans in many countries—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, China and elsewhere. [16]

In literature

Mime offers food to the young Siegfried, an orphan he is raising; Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Richard Wagner's Siegfried Ring36.jpg
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. [17] 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's Jane Eyre , Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist , Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn , L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables , Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure , and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings . Among more recent authors, A. J. Cronin, Lemony Snicket, A. F. Coniglio, Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling, 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 their immediate family as seen in Lyle Kessler's play Orphans .

Orphans are especially common as characters in comic books. Almost all the most popular heroes are orphans: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, The Flash, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Green Arrow were all orphaned. Orphans are also very common among villains: Bane, Catwoman, and Magneto are examples. Lex Luthor, Deadpool, and Carnage can also be included on this list, though they killed one or both of their parents. Supporting characters befriended by the heroes are also often orphans, including the Newsboy Legion and Rick Jones.

In religious texts

Mother of Peace AIDS orphanage, Zimbabwe (2005) MOPC 63.jpg
Mother of Peace AIDS orphanage, Zimbabwe (2005)

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. The religious leaders Moses and Muhammad were orphaned as children. Several scriptural citations describe how orphans should be treated:



See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adoption</span> Parenting a child in place of the original parents

Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, from that person's biological or legal parent or parents. Legal adoptions permanently transfer all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parents to the adoptive parents.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Orphanage</span> Residential institution devoted to the care of orphans

An orphanage is a residential institution, total institution or group home, devoted to the care of orphans and children who, for various reasons, cannot be cared for by their biological families. The parents may be deceased, absent, or abusive. There may be substance abuse or mental illness in the biological home, or the parent may simply be unwilling to care for the child. The legal responsibility for the support of abandoned children differs from country to country, and within countries. Government-run orphanages have been phased out in most developed countries during the latter half of the 20th century but continue to operate in many other regions internationally. It is now generally accepted that orphanages are detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of children, and government support goes instead towards supporting the family unit.

The international adoption of South Korean children was at first started as a result of a large number of orphaned mixed children from the Korean War after 1953, but later included orphaned Korean children. Religious organizations in the United States, Australia, and many Western European nations slowly developed into the apparatus that sustained international adoption as a socially integrated system. This system, however, is essentially gone as of 2020. The number of children given for adoption is lower than in comparable OECD countries of a similar size, the majority of adoptees are adopted by South Korean families, and the number of international adoptees is at a historical low.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Trafficking of children</span> Form of human trafficking

Trafficking of children is a form of human trafficking and is defined by the United Nations as the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, and/or receipt" kidnapping of a child for the purpose of slavery, forced labour and exploitation. This definition is substantially wider than the same document's definition of "trafficking in persons". Children may also be trafficked for the purpose of adoption.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">HIV/AIDS in India</span>

HIV/AIDS in India is an epidemic. The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) estimated that 2.14 million people lived with HIV/AIDS in India in 2017. Despite being home to the world's third-largest population of persons with HIV/AIDS, the AIDS prevalence rate in India is lower than that of many other countries. In 2016, India's AIDS prevalence rate stood at approximately 0.30%—the 80th highest in the world. Treatment of HIV/AIDS is primarily via a "drug cocktail" of antiretroviral drugs and education programs to help people avoid infection.

Coptic Orphans (CO) is an international development organization that has transformed the lives of over 75,000 children in Egypt since 1988. Its mission is to break the cycle of poverty through long-term programs that focus on education.

Militant use of children in Sri Lanka has been an internationally recognized problem since the inception of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983. The primary recruiters of under the age of 18 children are the rebel LTTE movement and the Karuna group, a break-away faction of the LTTE working with Sri Lanka Forces. Human Rights Watch criticized that threats and intimidation were used by the LTTE to force Tamil families in Sri Lanka to furnish children for military duty. When families reject, their children are sometimes kidnapped at night from their homes or forced recruited while walking to school. Parents who refuse to allow their children to be recruited suffer retaliation by the Tamil Tigers, which may include violence or detention.

The topic of Islam and children includes the rights of children in Islam, the duties of children towards their parents, and the rights of parents over their children, both biological and foster children. Also discussed are some of the differences regarding rights with respect to different schools of thought.

Child laundering is a scheme whereby intercountry adoptions are effected by illegal and fraudulent means. It may involve the trafficking of children and the acquisition of children through payment, deceit and/or force. The children may then be held in sham orphanages while formal international adoption processes are used to send the children to adoptive parents in another country.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Orphan Train</span> U.S. welfare program

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1854 and 1929, relocating about 200,000 children. The co-founders of the Orphan Train movement claimed that these children were orphaned, abandoned, abused, or homeless, but this was not always true. They were mostly the children of new immigrants and the children of the poor and destitute families living in these cities. Criticisms of the program include ineffective screening of caretakers, insufficient follow-ups on placements, and that many children were used as strictly slave farm labor.

Family preservation was the movement to help keep children at home with their families rather than in foster homes or institutions. This movement was a reaction to the earlier policy of family breakup, which pulled children out of unfit homes. Extreme poverty alone was seen as a justified reason to remove children. This new movement began in the 1890s, and in the 1909 White House Conference on Children it was the top ranked issue. In order to keep families together, the family would be given enough money so that the mother would not have to work a full-time job. The families that were given this assistance were usually headed by widows.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York</span>

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (HOA) was a Jewish orphanage in New York City. It was founded in 1860 by the Hebrew Benevolent Society. It closed in 1941, after pedagogical research concluded that children thrive better in foster care or small group homes, rather than in large institutions. The successor organization is the JCCA, formerly called the Jewish Child Care Association.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">AIDS orphan</span> Child whose parents have died from AIDS

An AIDS orphan is a child who became an orphan because one or both parents died from AIDS.

Orphanhood in Romania became prevalent as a consequence of the Socialist Republic of Romania's pro-natality policy under Nicolae Ceaușescu. Its effectiveness led to an increase in birth rates at the expense of adequate family planning and reproductive rights. Its consequences were most felt with the collapse of the regime's social safety net during the Romanian austerity period, which led to widespread institutional neglect of the needs of orphans, with severe consequences in their health and well-being. A series of international and governmental interventions have taken place since the 1990s to improve the conditions in orphanages and reform the country's child protection system, with variable degrees of success.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deinstitutionalisation (orphanages and children's institutions)</span> Process of closing down orphanages

Deinstitutionalisation is the process of reforming child care systems and closing down orphanages and children's institutions, finding new placements for children currently resident and setting up replacement services to support vulnerable families in non-institutional ways. It became common place in many developed countries in the post war period. It has been taking place in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and is now encouraged by the EU for new entrants. It is also starting to take hold in Africa and Asia although often at individual institutions rather than statewide. New systems generally cost less than those they replace as many more children are kept within their own family. Although these goals have been made internationally, they are actively being working towards as reform and new reforms are put into practice slowly as is fit for each country.

Child-selling is the practice of selling children, usually by parents, legal guardians, or subsequent custodians, including adoption agencies, orphanages and Mother and Baby Homes. Where the subsequent relationship with the child is essentially non-exploitative, it is usually the case that purpose of child-selling was to permit adoption.

Street children or orphans in some Eastern European countries face problems such as malnutrition, HIV, lack of resources, victimization though child sex tourism, social stigmatization and discrimination.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Orphans in Russia</span>

As of 2011 from the numbers presented from Russia at the UN states that, Russia has over 650,000 children who are registered orphans, 70% of which arrived in the orphanages in the 1990s. Of these, 370,000 are in state-run institutions while the others are either in foster care or have been adopted. Reports have ranged saying that between 66 and 95% of all of these children are considered social orphans, meaning that one or more of their birth parents are still alive.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Child abductions in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine</span> Genocidal abduction of children

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Ukrainian children have been abducted, deported, and forcibly adopted to the Russian Federation. The United Nations has declared that allegations are "credible", and that Russian forces have sent Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption as part of a large scale program. An Associated Press investigation confirmed that Russian forces forcibly resettled Ukrainian children without their consent, lied to them that their parents rejected them, used them for propaganda, established summer camps for Ukrainian orphans and "patriotic education", and Russified them by giving them a Russian citizenship and parents, with the aim to erase their Ukrainian identity.


  1. ὀρφανός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus
  2. Merriam-Webster online dictionary
  3. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition "One deprived by death of father or mother, or (usu.) of both; a fatherless or motherless child."
  4. "orphan". Dictionary.com.
  5. "USCIS definition for immigration purposes". Archived from the original on 2019-07-30. Retrieved 2015-10-21.
  6. UNAIDS Global Report 2008
  7. See, for example, this 19th-century news story about The Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children, or this one about the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum.
  8. USAID/UNICEF/UNAIDS (2002) "Children on the brink 2002: a joint report on orphan estimates and program strategies", Washington: USAID/UNICEF/UNAIDS.
  9. TvT Associates/The Synergy Project (July 2002). "Children on the Brink 2002: A Joint Report on Orphan Estimates and Program Strategies" (PDF). UNAIDS and UNICEF. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 23, 2003.
  10. China to insure orphans as preventative health measure
  11. "A Summer of Hope for Russian Orphans". The New York Times. July 21, 2002.
  12. Tacon, P. (1982). "Carlinhos: the hard gloss of city polish". UNICEF news.{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. Scanlon, TJ (1998). "Street children in Latin America". BMJ. 316 (7144): 1596–2100. doi:10.1136/bmj.316.7144.1596. PMC   1113205 . PMID   9596604.
  14. Weaver, David (5 September 2019). "Parental Mortality and Outcomes among Minor and Adult Children". papers.ssrn.com. SSRN   3471209.
  15. Roman, Nicoleta (8 November 2017). "Introduction". In Roman, Nicoleta (ed.). Orphans and Abandoned Children in European History: Sixteenth to Twentieth Centuries. Routledge Studies in Modern European History. Abingdon: Routledge (published 2017). ISBN   9781351628839 . Retrieved 25 November 2020. The industrial revolution touched both villages and cities, with migration from one to the other going hand-in-hand with urban overpopulation and severe poverty. Urban population growth also led to an increase in abandonment, the poor swinging between finding work, begging or claiming social assistance from the State as a means of integrating themselves and their family, including their children, into society.
  16. For a high estimate see I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, eds. The Oxford companion to World War II (1995) p. 208; for lower, see Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (2006) p. 21.
  17. Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 16, ISBN   0-87116-195-8
  18. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, To Enjoy and Bring Joy to Others in Peninei Halakha - Laws of the Festivals


United States