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Children without caregivers risk exclusion

Families have the primary responsibility for caring for and protecting children. But, for numerous reasons - including the loss of parents, separation related to displacement, domestic violence, abuse and extreme poverty - many children are deprived of a loving, caring family environment. When, for whatever reason, family protection for children breaks down, State parties are obliged under Articles 20 and 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to provide the children with special protection and assistance.

For all too many children, however, this assistance is not forthcoming. Instead, they have to fend for themselves in the adult world. It is no surprise, then, that they often find themselves at risk of exploitation and excluded from essential services.

Increasing numbers of children are forced by the death of one or both parents to assume responsibility not only for their own lives but also for those of their younger siblings, often with tragic consequences for their rights and development.

At the end of 2003 there were an estimated 143 million orphans under the age of 18 in 93 developing countries. More than 16 million children were orphaned in 2003 alone. These alarming figures are partly due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic without which the global number of orphans would be expected to decline. [figure 3.2]

Education is often among the first casualties for an orphan. Children may drop out of school because the domestic burdens upon them become too great or because new carers within their community or extended family are unprepared to meet the costs attached to education. If that happens they also become more exposed to exclusion from other services, including vital information about health, nutrition and life skills, such as how to help protect themselves from violence and abuse.

Orphaned children become much more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The death of a parent, in situations where no adequate alternative care systems are in place, opens up a protection gap. Children living on their own are at much greater risk of abuse by predatory adults. Assessments by the International Labour Organization have found that orphaned children are much more likely than non-orphans to be working in commercial agriculture, as street vendors, in domestic service and in the sex trade. In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for example, 28 per cent of the child domestic workers interviewed in one study had been orphaned, while a study of children working in Zambia - many in prostitution - found that one third were orphans.