Orphanages are the problem

An abandoned teddy bear sits in a wooden cubby hole in a dingy room

The vicious circle in a global crisis

Across the world, in a variety of contexts, orphanages are still widely misunderstood. Information has been slow to reach the general public. As a result, there are lots of misconception about institutions.

The most prevalent myth is that orphanages care for orphan children.

Well-meaning individuals and organisations commonly fundraise to support children in orphanages in lower-income countries. What they don’t know, is the majority of children in institutions aren’t orphans, but have at least one living parent.

These orphanages are sometimes seen as an appropriate response to perceived ‘orphan crises’. These ‘crises’ can be linked to wars, natural disasters or health pandemics like COVID, HIV/AIDS and Ebola. While many children do lose parents in crises, most of those ending up in institutions are displaced, separated from their families, not orphaned. Nearly all children confined to orphanages have family that could care for them, with support.

How orphanages cause family separation

Professionals in the sector increasingly recognise that institutional care creates a vicious circle. The very existence of orphanages causes children to be separated from their families. In several countries, most children in institutions are left there by parents who lacked the means to care for them.


Poverty is in fact a significant underlying reason for children ending up in orphanages. Many parents struggle to provide food, housing, medicine and access to education for their children. They’re led to believe that orphanages will provide them with a better future. Institution managers and staff sometimes actively invite parents living in poverty to place children in their facilities. They promise services, nutrition, shelter, access to education, health care and better chances for the children.

Orphanages cover up social problems

Orphanages, therefore, don’t respond to orphan crises: instead they actively contribute to family separation. Worse, they provide a one-size-fits-all response to deeper societal problems, which are then left unaddressed.

Orphanages perpetuate discrimination

Where mechanisms for protecting children’s rights are weak, institutions are used to isolate specific groups of children, perceived as unfit for life in the community:

  • children with disabilities
  • those belonging to ethnic minorities 
  • children born out of wedlock,
  • and children living with HIV/AIDS 

So orphanages perpetuate a system of structural discrimination.

Orphanages are not the answer

Naturally, a smaller percentage of children are in institutional care because of orphanhood, severe neglect or abuse. While care outside the birth or extended family may be necessary and in the best interest of the child, institutions can never offer an adequate solution for children without parental care. A range of family- and community-based options should be available to provide appropriate support and quality care to children in their communities.