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Orphans by Thomas Kennington, oil on canvas, 1885

An orphan (from the Greek: ορφανός, romanizedorphanós)[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 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 (1888)
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

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.

Continent Number of
orphans (1000s)
Orphans as percentage
of all children
Africa 34,294 11.9%
Asia 65,504 6.5%
Latin America & Caribbean 8,166 7.4%
Total 107,964 7.6%
Year Country Orphans as % of all children AIDS orphans as % of orphans Total orphans Total orphans (AIDS related) Maternal (total) Maternal (AIDS related) Paternal (total) Paternal (AIDS related) Double (total) Double (AIDS related)
1990 Botswana 5.9 3.0 34,000 1,000 14,000 < 100 23,000 1,000 2,000 < 100
Lesotho 10.6 2.9 73,000 < 100 31,000 < 100 49,000 < 100 8,000 < 100
Malawi 11.8 5.7 524,000 30,000 233,000 11,000 346,000 23,000 55,000 6,000
Uganda 12.2 17.4 1,015,000 177,000 437,000 72,000 700,000 138,000 122,000 44,000
1995 Botswana 8.3 33.7 55,000 18,000 19,000 7,000 37,000 13,000 5,000 3,000
Lesotho 10.3 5.5 77,000 4,000 31,000 1,000 52,000 4,000 7,000 1,000
Malawi 14.2 24.6 664,000 163,000 305,000 78,000 442,000 115,000 83,000 41,000
Uganda 14.9 42.4 1,456,000 617,000 720,000 341,000 1,019,000 450,000 282,000 211,000
2001 Botswana 15.1 70.5 98,000 69,000 69,000 58,000 91,000 69,000 62,000 61,000
Lesotho 17.0 53.5 137,000 73,000 66,000 38,000 108,000 63,000 37,000 32,000
Malawi 17.5 49.9 937,000 468,000 506,000 282,000 624,000 315,000 194,000 159,000
Uganda 14.6 51.1 1,731,000 884,000 902,000 517,000 1,144,000 581,000 315,000 257,000


  • 2001 figures from 2002 UNICEF/UNAIDS report[9]
  • China: A survey conducted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2005 showed that China has about 573,000 orphans below 18 years old.[10]
  • Russia: According to Russian reports from 2002 cited in the New York Times, 650,000 children are housed in orphanages. They are released at age 16, and 40% become homeless, while 30% become criminals or commit suicide.[11]
  • Latin America: Street children have a major presence in Latin America; some estimate that there are as many as 40 million street children in Latin America.[12] Although not all street children are orphans, all street children work and many do not have significant family support.[13]
  • United States: About 2 million children in the United States (or about 2.7 percent of children) have a deceased mother or father. About 100,000 children have lost both parents.[14]

Notable orphans[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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:


  • "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan." (Hebrew Bible, Exodus 22:22)
  • "Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns".(Hebrew Bible, Book of Deuteronomy 16:14)[18]
  • "Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me." (Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 49:11)
  • "To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress." (Hebrew Bible, Psalms 10:18)
  • "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." (New Testament, John 14:18)
  • "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (New Testament, James 1:27)


  • "And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive," - (The Quran, The Human: 8)
  • "Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness," (The Quran, The Morning Hours: 9)
  • "Have you not seen those who deny the faith and the Day of Judgment? Those are people who drive orphans away harshly, and do not encourage feeding the indigent. So woe be upon those who do prayer but are neglectful of it or show it off out of vanity, and those who deny even small kindnesses to others." - (The Quran, Small Kindnesses: 1–7)
  • "(Be good to) orphans and the very poor. And speak good words to people." (The Quran, The Heifer: 83)
  • "...They will ask you about the property of orphans. Say, 'Managing it in their best interests is best'. If you mix your property with theirs, they are your brothers..." (The Quran, The Heifer: 220)
  • "Give orphans their property, and do not substitute bad things for good. Do not assimilate their property into your own. Doing that is a serious crime." (The Quran, The Women: 2)
  • "Keep a close check on orphans until they reach a marriageable age, then if you perceive that they have sound judgement hand over their property to them..." (The Quran, The Women: 6)

See also[edit]


  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


  • Bullen, John. "Orphans, Idiots, Lunatics, and More Idiots: Recent Approaches to the History of Child Welfare in Canada," Histoire Sociale: Social History, May 1985, Vol. 18 Issue 35, pp 133–145
  • Harrington, Joel F. "The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany (2009)
  • Keating, Janie. A Child for Keeps: The History of Adoption in England, 1918-45 (2009)
  • Miller, Timothy S. The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire (2009)
  • Safley, Thomas Max. Children of the Laboring Poor: Expectation and Experience Among the Orphans of Early Modern Augsburg (2006)
  • Sen, Satadru. "The orphaned colony: Orphanage, child and authority in British India," Indian Economic and Social History Review, Oct-Dec 2007, Vol. 44 Issue 4, pp 463-488
  • Terpstra, Nicholas. Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna (2005)

United States[edit]

  • Berebitsky, Julie. Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950 (2000)
  • Carp, E. Wayne, ed. Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (2003)
  • Hacsi, Timothy A. A Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (1997)
  • Herman, Ellen. "Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (2008) ISBN 978-0-226-32760-0
  • Kleinberg, S. J. Widows And Orphans First: The Family Economy And Social Welfare Policy, 1880-1939 (2006)
  • Miller, Julie. Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City (2007)

External links[edit]