Redefining and Removing the Orphan Label: A Call to Action for Sustainable Child Care Reform

In the realm of humanitarian aid and development, the term “orphan” has long been associated with vulnerability and the need for intervention. Yet, beneath this seemingly benevolent label lies a complex web of misconceptions and harmful stereotypes that can perpetuate cycles of dependency and disempowerment. In my child protection, child rights and care work I have witnessed firsthand the detrimental impact of this label on children and communities, particularly in countries like mine –  Uganda.

At its core, the orphan label strips children of their agency and identity, reducing them to objects of pity and charity. By categorising them solely based on the absence of parental care, we overlook the multitude of factors that contribute to their well-being and resilience. Instead of recognising the inherent strength and resourcefulness within communities, we succumb to a narrative of saviorism, wherein outsiders swoop in to “rescue” the helpless “orphans”.

The term orphanage, derived from the orphan label, has become synonymous with institutionalisation and separation from family and community ties. Shockingly, research and my own professional experience have revealed that a significant percentage – 80-90%—of children living in orphanages are not “orphans.” Many have living parents or extended family members who, if provided with adequate support, could care for their children.

80-90%—of children living in orphanages are not “orphans.”

This misalignment between the orphan label and reality perpetuates a cycle of dependency and marginalisation, further exacerbating issues of poverty and social exclusion. By diverting resources towards orphanages and institutional care, we neglect the potential for community led and grass roots based solutions that prioritise family strengthening, community solutions  and the appropriate support.

It is time to redefine our approach to caring for children at risk and remove the orphan label from our discourse. Instead of viewing children through the lens of deficits and deprivation, we must recognise their inherent worth and agency.We must shift our focus from rescue to strengthening and resourcefulness, from institutionalisation to family care, and from charity to sustainable development.

This begins with challenging the narrative around children unnecessarily separated from their families and advocating for policies and practices that prioritise family strengthening and community support. It entails investing in social protection systems that strengthen families and prevent unnecessary separation, many already exist and can be adapted.  It requires multi-agency approaches and collaboration across sectors to address the root causes of poverty and inequality, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to thrive within a supportive and nurturing family.

As individuals and organisations committed to social justice and human rights, we have a collective responsibility to challenge the status quo and advocate for change. I ask that we redefine the narrative surrounding children who are separated from their families and work towards a future where every child is valued, protected, accounted for.

Call to Action:

  • Educate yourself and others about the realities of children separated from their families and institutional care.
  • Support community led and grassroot based initiatives that prioritise family strengthening and reunification.
  • Advocate for policy reforms that redirect resources towards sustainable care solutions.
  • Engage with local organisations and stakeholders to promote holistic approaches to child welfare and well being.
  • Amplify the voices of children and families affected by separation, ensuring their perspectives are heard and valued in decision-making processes.

I’d like to see a world where we have redefined the narrative and collectively created a more inclusive future for children who are separated from their families around the world

Christopher is the CEO of Child’s i Foundation and co founder of his views are his own, but if you would like to learn more about sustainable Child Care Reform, please visit

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