I wrote the response below to a friend and orphan ministry leader who has rightly challenged orphan rescue and care organizations to do a better job of communicating the true number of orphans in need of intervention. UNICEF categorizes an orphan as a child who has lost either mother or father to death (a "single orphan") in addition to one who has lost both parents to death (a "double orphan")
Although it's certainly in need of updating, World Orphans has used the following statement on its website for the past three years:
The number of children in the world that have lost their mother or father, are parentless, or have been abandoned…now exceeds 143 million.
In this way, we have tried to not be misleading by covering the single-orphan and double-orphan bases, while also including tens of millions of abandoned children and, by extrapolation, millions of homeless street children who are under no effective parental/guardian authority. Having said that, I've often thought of taking the higher number off of the Website. We simply haven't gotten around to it and it's embedded in a flash animation that none of us know how to change. Not a good excuse, I know, but when you're in the midst of trying to rescue as many kids as possible, some things get put on the back burner. I believe it's the only place we now use the figure, but with the clarification language provided above.
I've actually written a chapter in my upcoming book on "the count" and will be more-than-happy to forward it to you when it is closer to completion.
Things to consider are:
1.) The UNICEF orphan numbers (145 million) are only for deceased parents. If you were to factor in single parents in general, we'd be talking a number many times higher.
2.) The majority of these children are in countries with inadequate social services/support. An ostracized/disenfranchised widow in Kenya has very little hope of feeding and educating her children, compared to a single mother living in the projects of Baltimore.
3.) Many of these remaining parents of "single orphans" are themselves suffering from the same ailments (or under the same death sentence) that took their spouses. They are incapacitated.
4.) Many of these remaining parents of "single orphans" have to work 12 to 18 hour days to survive, thereby leaving kids to roam streets or raise themselves.
5.) UNICEF/WHO estimate 100 million street children (either abandoned, runaways, market kids, or effectively left to their own devices by parents). Some organizations state that that number is closer to 150 million to 200 million. It's clear that many of the "single orphans" fall into this category, based on the circumstances above and related circumstances. They may have a surviving parent, but they're essentially on their own.
6.) The UNICEF orphan numbers DON'T include abandonment (millions of children) as well as sold and/or trafficked children. Are the millions of kids abandoned in China not orphans?
7.) The UNICEF orphan numbers DON'T include many non-reporting nations (namely, Middle Eastern Islamic nations) where shame and divorce abandonment are rampant. 200,000 + orphans in Iraq, for instance, are not part of the count.
8.) In many cultures we work in, the children taken in by extended family are denied education and are used as domestic servants or, worse, abused. Sure, they're "in a family," but they have no hope, no dignity.
9.) In many other countries, children are institutionalized. Yes, they're in "care," but are also ill-prepared to integrate into society and are often in abusive and vulnerable situations themselves.
Given the above, I think we're looking at a number quite higher than 15 million "double orphans." We often communicate that the real number of kids that fall into our care categories is somewhere around 40 or 50 million.