UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. By this definition there were over 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. This large figure represents not only children who have lost both parents, but also those who have lost a father but have a surviving mother or have lost their mother but have a surviving father.
Of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. Evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent grandparent, or other family member. 95 percent of all orphans are over the age of five.
This definition contrasts with concepts of orphan in many industrialized countries, where a child must have lost both parents to qualify as an orphan. UNICEF and numerous international organizations adopted the broader definition of orphan in the mid-1990s as the AIDS pandemic began leading to the death of millions of parents worldwide, leaving an ever increasing number of children growing up without one or more parents. So the terminology of a ‘single orphan’ – the loss of one parent – and a ‘double orphan’ – the loss of both parents – was born to convey this growing crisis.
However, this difference in terminology can have concrete implications for policies and programming for children. For example, UNICEF’s ‘orphan’ statistic might be interpreted to mean that globally there are 132 million children in need of a new family, shelter, or care. This misunderstanding may then lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.
In keeping with this and the agency’s commitment to adapt to the evolving realities of the AIDS crisis, UNICEF commissioned an analysis of population household surveys across 36 countries. Designed to compare current conditions of orphans and non-orphans, the global analysis suggests we should further expand our scope, focusing less on the concept of orphanhood and more on a range of factors that render children vulnerable. These factors include the family's ownership of property, the poverty level of the household, the child’s relationship to the head of the household, and the education level of the child’s parents, if they are living.
In UNICEF’s experience, these are the elements that can help identify both children and their families – whether this term includes living parents, grandparents or other relatives – who have the greatest need for our support.