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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, are unknown or have permanently abandoned them. It can also refer to a child who has lost only one parent, as the Hebrew translation, for example, is "fatherless". [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 everyday 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%
YearCountryOrphans 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)
1990 Botswana 5.93.034,0001,00014,000< 10023,0001,0002,000< 100
Lesotho 10.62.973,000< 10031,000< 10049,000< 1008,000< 100
Malawi 11.85.7524,00030,000233,00011,000346,00023,00055,0006,000
Uganda 12.217.41,015,000177,000437,00072,000700,000138,000122,00044,000


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 artwork. 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 prevalent as literary protagonists, especially in children's and fantasy literature. [17] The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more exciting 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 by 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 depicting 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 .

Several 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. Many popular heroes are orphans, including Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, The Flash, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Green Arrow. 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 fundamental 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

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  1. ὀρφανός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus
  2. "Definition of ORPHAN". www.merriam-webster.com. May 16, 2023.
  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" (PDF). UN AIDS. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-06-17. Retrieved 2023-08-14.
  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 preventitive health measure_English_Xinhua". July 22, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-07-22.
  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


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