Alison Boak and Shelby French

Navigating the road to adulthood: The experience of parentless youth

Adolescence is a notoriously challenging period of rapid and often confusing change. At this juncture, young people must assume independence and increased responsibility within their communities. They are faced with multiple decisions about their health, safety, goals and aspirations. The stakes for a successful transition into adulthood are high; the decisions made during this period of life can have long-term and often lifelong consequences.

The shift into adulthood is particularly precarious for the 153 million children and youth without parental care in the world today. Parentless youth – often living in institutions, kinship care or simply on their own – are without stable and consistent support systems in their lives. In many communities, children have already taken on the roles and responsibilities of adults. They must defend not only their own survival, but the survival of younger siblings, children and community members who may be in their care.

A limited but growing body of research shows the numerous ways parentless youth face exploitation worldwide. Studies (such as those undertaken by The International Organization for Adolescents (IOFA)) document the threat of vulnerable adolescents being trafficked into labour or sexual slavery; recruited into criminal syndicates or rebel armies; and exposed to violence, disease and displacement. Protective policies and programmes addressing these dangers are limited, so most parentless youth are required to mitigate these increasing risks and perils on their own.

The current economic crisis – the worst facing the world in more than 80 years – has undoubtedly hit parentless youth hard, not only in the transition economies of the former Soviet countries across Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but around the globe. High unemployment renders the challenge to find a job and make healthy life decisions much more difficult.

Parentless youth, many of whom grew up in orphanages or other institutions, do not have the opportunity to gain the necessary job skills to compete in finding the limited employment available. Many lack the social networks of family and friends to support them during their transition. To find jobs and a new life, most youth leave for the nearest big city or even a new country, in hope that a brighter future lies ahead. However, many find a life of hunger and disappointment, and in some cases end up forced into prostitution, sold into human slavery, dealing drugs or begging and stealing to survive.

Natural disasters and the effects of HIV and AIDS disproportionately affect parentless youth. As we have seen all too well in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, when disaster strikes, many youth lose their parents and support systems and are left to fend for themselves and their siblings. Wandering the streets, looking for food, shelter and work, young people are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Additionally, in sub-Saharan Africa, the millions of children who were orphaned at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s are now approaching or have graduated to adulthood. At the same time, we see incidences of human trafficking in the region rapidly increasing and more adolescents falling prey to child labour, recruitment as child soldiers and commercial sexual exploitation.

Despite the growing body of evidence, governments and international and local non-governmental organizations do very little to support young people during their maturation. Most institutional and community support mechanisms are designed for children at the early stages of development. There is no doubt that young children are tremendously vulnerable and must be protected and supported at all costs. However, this support and attention must continue during the last and arguably most crucial stage to future life success: adolescence.

If young people are not supported, traffickers will find more victims, criminal syndicates will have more recruits and disease will continue to find refuge. All organizations, agencies and governments involved with the protection of children and adolescents must provide education, outreach and protective policies that offer hope, opportunity and viable options for a safe passage to adulthood. Although the road ahead poses many challenges, adolescents have the potential and resilience to develop into healthy and functional adults if given support and skills during this critical journey.

We at IOFA aim to raise awareness of the needs of parentless youth transitioning to adulthood. We call on all organizations to consider this population in their programming. We call on governments to adopt youth-specific policies to defend the transition of parentless youth to adulthood. We call on donors to understand the urgency of the issue and maintain programmes that provide guidance for vulnerable youth during this critical stage of their development. And we call on the world to embrace and support young people as they enter one of the riskiest periods in their lives.

Co-founder and President of the International Organization for Adolescents (IOFA), Alison Boak is a longtime advocate of adolescent health and an international expert on the issue of child trafficking. She has successfully created dozens of programmes in more than 20 countries to prevent children from exploitation and promote their development as leaders and productive members of society. Shelby French is IOFA’s Executive Director. Most recently, she served as the Rotary Foundation’s Economic and Community Development Specialist and worked for over seven years with CARE in the areas of resource development and emergency response.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.