How many children are there in orphanages around the world?

A child sits alone on the bottom bunk of a dim room filled with metal bunk beds, in an orphanage in Kenya

We know that orphanages are harmful to children. But it is difficult to determine the scale of the problem. Exactly how many children are there in orphanages around the world? As Victoria Olarte, Senior Strategic Research Partner explains, statistics and evidence in the world of child rights is an ever-evolving picture.

Ending orphanage care

Since 2005, I’ve worked with some of the world’s most marginalised children, striving for child protection and care systems that support children to thrive – from Rwanda to Bulgaria to Latin America. Passionate about evidence-based policy and practice, I have been privileged to lead national and regional care reform programmes in which our research has contributed to ground-breaking change.

Why is counting the numbers of children in orphanages important?

For example, in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, our 2012 national survey of institutions found 3,323 children living in 33 institutions. We also collected data around the characteristics of the children, as well as how and why they were sent to orphanages. Combined with evidence from our programmes and insights from our pilot closure of the Mpore Pefa institution, this gave the Government of Rwanda the information they needed to plan a route away from orphanages and towards family and community based care for all children.  Indeed, Rwanda’s National Strategy for Child Care Reform is the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa.

More recently, I found care leavers in Latin America eager to speak truth to power about the realities of children’s lives in institutions and the challenges of leaving the child protection system and living independently as adults.  Their testimonies provide powerful evidence that governments must dramatically improve support for care leavers  and eliminate institutions once and for all.

How can research help to close orphanages?

Now I have taken up a new post as Senior Strategic Research Partner, my job is to lead our global efforts to build research, evidence and insights so we can achieve our mission to catalyse child care reform across the world.

Research seeks to answer unanswered questions. Over time, those questions and answers may be refined, bringing new or different data, perspectives and contexts into play. With a curious mind, we will always be able to learn and understand more – and this curiosity is leading us to ask more questions at Hope and Homes for Children. One question that we hear frequently is:

“So, how many children really live in orphanages around the world?”

For many years, we used the figure of 8 million children living in institutions as it was based on the best available estimates from Save the Children.  Today we can say that we know more about the scale of institutionalisation, thanks to Dr Chris Desmond and his team. Their global enumeration study provides the most recent and robust global estimates of children living in institutions. An estimated 5.4 million children live in institutions around the world. Sadly, this change does not represent progress towards deinstitutionalisation; the figure is the median average of a range of statistical estimates ranging from 3 to over 9 million children.

The truth is that we don’t really know how many children are living in orphanages worldwide, due to the lack of reliable data collection in many countries and the large proportion of unregistered institutions. We believe that even 5.4m is a conservative total estimate; the true number could well be higher.

Discounted, hidden and forgotten.

This lack of robust data is further proof of the way children in orphanages are discounted, hidden and forgotten, often warehoused in unlicensed, unregulated institutions. Still, this estimate paints a powerful picture of the scale of the issue. It helps evidence-led organisations like us to progress reform of child care systems and dramatically reduce the number of them.

What we know: orphanages harm children

When it comes to the impact of institutionalisation on children’s development, we can confidently say that a strong body of evidence shows that orphanages harm children. Under the Lancet Commission a group of academic experts in child health and mental health undertook a meta-analysis of 65 years’ worth of research on the development of children raised in institutions. It was a sizeable undertaking, analysing both quantitative and qualitative data from over 300 studies, carried out in over 60 countries with more than 100,000 children, of whom almost half have lived or are currently living in institutions.  What this showed is that growing up in an institution is strongly linked with negative impacts on children’s development, including

  • their physical growth,
  • cognition,
  • attention,
  • ability to form attachments,
  • socio-emotional development
  • and mental health.

The Lancet Commission shows that moving to family based care can help repair some of this harm, especially earlier in life. But the longer children spend in institutional care, the greater the likelihood of negative impact and the smaller the chance of recovery.

There is also a growing body of evidence that institutions are not only harmful to children whilst in the institution, they generate lifelong repercussions when they leave care as young adults and perpetuate intergenerational poverty.

Our body of practice

Over two decades, we’ve built a body of practice and expertise in how to reform child care systems. We now see an opportunity to harness the data, evidence and insights to help illuminate the challenges and solutions we face, in the global drive to eliminate institutional care.

An evidence-driven organisation since our early days

Our founders Mark and Caroline Cook listened to children in Bjelave orphanage in Bosnia who shared their experiences and told them that they did not want to live in the orphanage, they wanted a family. Their testimony was powerful evidence of what children value, and we have responded to this evidence – as well as the testimony from thousands of children without parental care around the world who want the same thing. As well as valuing this evidence from children themselves, we have a history of producing expert programmatic evidence spanning all the regions we work in – from research into the situation of baby homes in Ukraine, children with disabilities in Rwanda, and care leavers in Latin America to name just a few.

Care reform needs robust evidence

Care system reform is a complex process which must be informed by robust evidence. In striving to meet the best interests of children, we must listen to them like our founders did. And we must go further to ensure that a diverse range of robust and rigorous evidence informs our approach to children’s care. The challenge ahead for us is an exciting one! I look forward to figuring out the knowns and unknowns, working closely with our talented teams on the ground, with academic partners and the growing community of researchers, NGOs, development partners and activists dedicated to generating and sharing evidence on how best to look after the world’s children. Evidence that shows not only the harm caused by institutionalisation and inaction – but the benefits gained for all by ensuring safe, loving families, responsive child protection and resilient communities.