Common Orphan Statistics in Context – Part 1

When I see a nonprofit share an interesting statistic in its marketing materials, I want to know where they got it, because 1) I want to know how reliable of a fact it is, 2) I need to cite its source properly if I want to use it in a paper. Here are a few of the most common orphan stats I’ve investigated…

1. “There are 140 (or 143, or 147, or…) million orphans in the world”

This mug actually exists

This statistic, favored by orphan care ministries and international adoption advocates, probably comes from this UNICEF press release.

The press release carefully explains that in this context, the term “orphan” means a child who has lost one or both parents, an odd definition which grew out of the urgent need in the 1990s to direct attention to all the children who were losing a parent (even just one) from HIV/AIDS.

Strangely, this means that an “orphan” might have a living parent. They probably have other living relatives too, or community members who are willing to care for them. This statistic does not mean “140 million children have nobody to care for them,” “140 million children are living in orphanages,” or “140 million children need to be adopted.”

The press release doesn’t say where its “140 million” figure comes from, just that it’s for the year 2015. But I found the source! UNICEF’s 2015 State of the World’s Children report has detailed stats by country available in Excel format (see the HIV/AIDS tab here). The table says 140 million children are orphaned worldwide, without really specifying how it gets to that sum from its patchy country-level data. And the source for the figures is simply, “UNAIDS, 2013 HIV and AIDS unpublished estimates, July 2014.”

Since the numbers are unpublished, we can’t check it any further, but I’d guess that UNAIDS received the data from the various Ministries of Health or Welfare or other government departments. (It’s not so great to keep the source data unavailable, though, when so many NGOs and charities are citing it!)

2. “80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent”

The data is weak, but it’s not a bad guess

Lumos, Hope & Homes for children, and other groups that advocate for deinstitutionalization frequency cite this figure. They say the source is a 2009 report by Save the Children called Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care.

The number “80%” doesn’t actually appear in this report though–the closest I found is the graphic on page 5, which gives percents for 8 countries in 5 continents. These 8 country percentages come from a range of sources, including one peer reviewed article and six non-peer reviewed reports by governments and NGOs (see no. 33-40 on page 23).

It’s a quick and dirty little sample that gives an okay estimate, and I suppose 80% is a fair average, but it is a tad outdated by now, and I’d love to see someone produce an updated figure produced with the rigor of statistic #3, below…

3. “2.7 million children are in orphanages”

I don’t see this one used all that much, but maybe it should be. This is UNICEF’s best guess at how many children are in alternative care, taken from a 2017 peer-reviewed article in the academic journal Child Abuse & Neglect by Patrowski, Cappa, & Gross.

They sum the data reported by 140 countries to get a figure of 2.3 million children in residential care–then they extrapolate for countries that don’t have data available, coming up with a total of 2.7 million children in residential care worldwide. They explain the process in detail in the article, which is free to access.

[Edit: I should have also mentioned that it’s likely that the 140 countries only reported on the registered residential care homes that they’re aware of. There are likely many unregistered homes, and thus many uncounted children, so 2.7 million is a conservative estimate.]

They tried to make similar estimates for the numbers of children in foster care, but unfortunately, not enough countries reported data to get a reliable worldwide total.


When you put these three stats together, here’s what you get. Something to think about, right?

8 thoughts on “Common Orphan Statistics in Context – Part 1”

  1. Thank you for this – at Fairstart we have been trying for years to know the numbers of orphan children, children in orphanages, etc., knowing that most stats are highly unreliable and biased according to organisation’s missions, such as Lumos and others. What we would like to know is an estimate of the effect of the UN call to close all orphanages. In our practical experience in many countries, this has created an enormous pressure on foster care systems and community support projects, with very little support from the governments who moved the children.In spite of no scientific evidence of foster care being superior to group care, measured by lifelong outcomes. Are there any estimates of how many children and youth are now placed in foster care? In Denmark there’s been an increase – now 60 % are in foster families and not in residential or group care. Thanks for any help!

    1. So true regarding the limitations of these numbers. For example, I think the 2.7 mil figure is probably too low because I don’t trust that governments are able to properly count all the kids in residential care (so many orphanages are unregistered).

      That is such a good question about foster care and something I’m extremely interested in finding out as well. The “Child Abuse & Neglect” article attempted to total all the children in foster care around the world, but could find way less data on foster care than they did for residential care ( You’ve given me some great questions to mull over for Part 2!

  2. Great article. It’s important to note that UNICEF’s figure of 2.7 million children in orphanages is based only on government reported figures. We know that there are a great many unlicensed institutions in which the children are not counted in any official data, and the discrepancy between official government numbers and actual numbers is large.The UNICEF data also does not report country by country, and as you mentioned, extrapolates for the countries with data unavailable. The real figure is likely to be much higher, and closer to the 8 million number. This figure, used by Lumos, Hope and Homes, ReThink Orphanages and others is based on figures cited by (Pinheiro, P. (2006). World Report on Violence against Children, UNICEF, New York). These figures are often reported as underestimates, due to lack of data from many countries and the large proportion of unregistered institutions. The consensus among practitioners is that the figure is far higher than 2.7 million.

    1. Leigh, thank you for your comment! The 8 million figure was already suggested by Rob Oliver on Twitter as one of the next for me to look into. I totally agree with you – I will edit the post to include this caveat.

  3. In the isolated corner of Thailand where we are working we were able to interview 605 children in 2014. These were all the children living in all of the 18 local children’s homes. The number of children who had at least one living parent was 90%. There are huge regional and local variations in the complex world of Alternative Care, but I expect in SE Asia the 90% is more common than the the oft quoted 80% because the drivers for institutionalization of children have been so well fueled here for the last couple of decades.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this Andy. Has your organization published the findings from your interview in a report online? That’s the sort of up-to-date, reliable, country-specific info that could really benefit other NGOs working in your context.

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