The World's Biggest Human-Rights Crisis? 150 Million Children Without Parents

ByWarren Myers

There are over 150,000,000 confirmed orphans in the world.

To give a bit of a size comparison, that is over 20,000,000 more people than live in Japan, equal to the population of Russia, or about half the population of the United States.

One hundred and fifty million children living without at least one parent, either due to abandonment, death, or legal disownership or handover to the state. That is an incredible number that only continues to rise globally. Just eight years ago in 2005 it was "only" about 132,000,000. At this rate, the global orphan population will exceed 200,000,000 in less than 20 years.

While adoption agencies around the world work very hard to place as many children as they can with receptive prospective parents, it is a time-consuming, complex, costly endeavor that many people are either scared away from considering, or cannot consider from a personal financial perspective.

Beyond the raw orphan population, though, are the harsh realities of orphanages (and lack thereof) globally. It is estimated that there are less than 2200 orphanages in Russia — far too few to care for the estimated 700,000 orphans in that huge country. If every orphan were cared for in an orphanage, that would equal more than 300 orphans per institution. Institutionalized living also accounts for months or years of developmental delays - by some studies, every six months in an orphanage leads to three months of developmental delay. This means that if a child is placed in an orphanage at birth and not adopted or placed into foster care by age three, they are closer to the developmental level of an 18-month-old in a normal environment. By age six, they have only progressed to the average three-year-old's level.

Orphans around the world are undercared for due to governments not caring, being underfunded, bureaucratic snafus, red tape, political unrest, and many other factors. In Uganda, for example, it is estimated that more than 2,300,000 orphans have been created due to civil unrest and AIDS. As human rights issues come more and more to light around the world, children are relegated to the back burner .

The most fundamental of all human rights is that to life — it's the first (and third) item in the UN Charter on Human Rights. World hunger is a problem that affects men, women, and children, but at least most of those are living together as families. The parentless, the orphans, the children of the world who are living without any parenting at all are the biggest human-rights victims of our generation. Genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, and the like are horrible tragedies, but in terms of a raw numerical comparison, Rwanda's genocide affected a little over 4,000,000 people (killing about 1,000,000). The crisis in Darfur has killed about 500,000, and displaced another nearly 3,000,000.

The expansion rate of the orphan population is continuing at nearly 10% per year in Sub-Saharan Africa: more than 53,000,000 orphans in total (about twice the population of Texas), adding nearly 6,000,000 in 2010 alone. Asia has about 70,000,000 orphans on its own — nearly twice the population of California.

What is the solution to this global human rights crisis? Politically, it may start by deemphasising generic "foreign aid" and instead focusing on giving aid where it can actually be used (foster care programs, additional orphanages, efforts to streamline adoption processes, etc). Personally, perhaps it's considering whether you are able to adopt, or if you can help those who are adopting in fundraising and awareness-raising.

One hundred and fifty million children are looking for help. Today, the help available only reaches a few hundred thousand of them. We must do better.