Growing Up |
How old were you when you first lived on your own? At what age were you financially independent for every aspect of your life–food, housing, medical expenses, transportation?
For many of us, although at age 18 we were legally considered “adults,” not until our early twenties were we really on our own. Think back on your first job. It was probably not intended to provide enough money to live on, but simply enough to save up for that first car, or put a dent in college tuition. Our teen years were a gradual process of learning independence.
Imagine, however, how much different life would have been if at thirteen you suddenly found yourself without any family structure or resources to fall back on. Or if at sixteen you “graduated” from an orphanage with nothing but the clothes on your back. What if you had been born with a physical or mental disability your hometown was unequipped to care for? What if war, disease, or natural disaster devastated your city before your tenth birthday?
For many children and youth around the globe, the gradual process of growing up is luxury they cannot afford. In 2012, Africa had over 58 million orphans, predominantly as a result of war, famine and disease. Nigeria alone had 11.5 million orphans, the same as the population of Moscow.  Estimates of children living in Ukrainian orphanages hovers around 100,000.  Justice for Orphans estimates 14+ million children grow up as orphans and age out of the system by age 16 every year (that’s over 38,000 daily). 
And although the term “orphan” is generally used to describe a child whose parents are deceased, some reports are turning to the phrase “unaccompanied” or “parentless” child to better encompass the realities of children whose parents are living–but uninvolved. For example, in Nepal over 15,000 children live in care homes–even though ”more than 85 percent of these children had at least one living parent, according to UNICEF.”
“One of the biggest myths is that children in orphanages are there because they have no parents. This is not the case. Most are there because their parents simply can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them. For example, the percentage of children in institutions with one or both parents alive in Liberia is 88% and Ghana is 90%.” Whether because of war, migration, poverty, disabilities, or abuse, hundreds of thousands of children around the world are fending for themselves everyday.
The result of this tragedy is not surprising: vulnerability. Children who are forced to fend for themselves in a world of adults are easily taken advantage of. This exploitation often comes in the form of sex or labor trafficking, but can also include organ trafficking and forced begging or petty theft.
“Socio-economic hardship, migration and weakened child protection networks constitute the root causes of children’s vulnerability,” explains UNICEF. “These factors have an impact upon children’s decision-making and their risk or resiliency…demographic, systemic and economic conditions have created a ‘large pool’ of children who are vulnerable to a range of child protection risks, including exploitation and trafficking.”
One common example of this vulnerability is seen in Ukraine, where the U.S. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports: “Children in orphanages and crisis centers continue to be particularly vulnerable to trafficking.” 
An article written by Disability Rights International summed up the message of their report “No Way Home, The Exploitation and Abuse of Children in Ukraine’s Orphanages.” 
“Children are often recruited directly from orphanages for sex and labor…Producers of child pornography go directly to orphanages to seek out their prey. And institutionalized children with disabilities are particularly susceptible to becoming trafficked for their organs. One grandmother of a newborn with Down Syndrome was told by doctors that they could sell the baby for organs and get money.
“Maria — who grew up in an orphanage in Odessa — fled at the age of 15, when she feared for her life.
‘Children would go into the woods behind the building and disappear,’ she told DRI. ‘Every year 10 to 12 children went missing. We thought it was rapists and murderers. Some children were found dead but nothing was done. The staff never asked ‘why’?” 
Sadly, child trafficking extends into the adoption “trade” as well. Traffickers often also coerce parents into relinquishing their children to orphanages in order to capitalize on the high fees of adoption. “In some cases children are deliberately separated from their families and placed in orphanages so they can be used to attract adoptive families, fee-paying volunteers and donors,” according to a UNICEF representative. 
In war-torn countries, such Afghanistan, the U.S. TIP report found increasing numbers of families who knowingly sold their children to traffickers because of debt bondage, or sold young girls into marriages involving forced prostitution.  In every part of the world, vulnerable children are trafficked to work on farms or in factories, fight as soldiers, work in brothels, sell or beg on street corners, commit petty crimes such as pick-pocketing, or provide lucrative money in the organ black market.
Even in the United States, vulnerable “orphaned” children are everywhere. It could look like the typical “latch-key” kid walking home on their own from the bus stop; children who are living with relatives or in foster care because of neglect or abuse; or teenage runaways making a living by couch surfing and street life. It is estimated that out of every 10 victims of sex trafficking in the United States, 8-9 have a history of prior abuse and life in the foster care system.
What Can We Do? |
When confronted by all these statistics, what can we do?
Well, the first step is rather simple: don’t be afraid to ask questions. Where did this chocolate come from? Who made my clothes? What is the history of this young girl my family is considering adopting? How reputable is this organization I’m considering supporting financially?
From there, you should find some logical next steps. Refuse to support companies with a history of child exploitation or labor trafficking. More than this, however, we must engage with organizations working on healthy solutions to orphan care. Some offer child sponsorship programs designed to keep children in the homes and going to school in areas of poverty. Others provide small family environments to offset the many dilemmas of mass orphanages. Organizations like World Vision provide child-friendly spaces in war-torn areas and refugee camps.
And, probably most importantly, consider supporting parentless youth in your own community. Notice the kids walking home from the bus stop. Mentor a teen living in a shelter. Open your home to foster children. Provide internships through your company to give runaway youth job skills to support themselves. No one person can do all of these, but together we can use our skills and passions to support vulnerable children worldwide.
 “No Way Home: The Exploitation and Abuse of Children in Ukraine’s Orphanages” http://www.driadvocacy.org/wp-content/uploads/No-Way-Home-final2.pdf
 “Ukraine Orphanages Feeder for Child Trafficking”