Over a year ago, I embarked on a battle with anti-institutionalization organizations regarding the terms “Orphan” and “Orphanages.” It was an emotional fight, one I didn’t anticipate succeeding in, but I continued due to the overwhelming support I received worldwide, particularly from the United States.
As the support grew, adoption agencies, government officials, and organizations joined the cause. I am proud to say that I have done everything I could, and now it is up to charities, foundations, and similar organizations to embrace accurate terminology.
The reason I emphasize “factual terms” is simple: the current usage is incorrect. According to the dictionary, an orphan is a child who has lost both parents to death. An orphanage is the place where orphans live. However, charities, foundations, and organizations disagree with this definition, believing that the United Nations should be the ultimate authority. This reliance on the United Nations has proven to be problematic because their definition of an orphan is a child who has lost one or both parents, which is more accurately termed a “foundling” according to every English dictionary I could find.
When I discovered that this reliance on the United Nations was the root cause (thanks to Sarah if she’s reading this!), I wrote a frustrated blog post. To my surprise, it gained widespread attention, including retweets from unlikely sources like a Moscow-based official and a Kyiv-based official. I suspect United Nations staff read my blog because I have been contacted several times by individuals affiliated with the organization. One of my like-minded friends informed me that the United Nations website had been updated regarding the term “orphans.” Upon verifying this information, I found that the United Nations, as quoted on the UNICEF website, now defines an orphan as a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death. While this doesn’t align with the dictionary definition, it signifies an important change: it focuses on parental abandonment through death rather than the broader sense of being “lost.”
This change, however seemingly small, holds significant importance. Consider a quote from an anti-institutionalization campaign by Disability Rights International: “Around the world, there are 10 million children in orphanages. 95% of these children have living parents. But poor and vulnerable families are often forced to give up children they love. Orphanages are not safe places for children; In fact, they can be deadly.” The fact that this campaign implies that 10 million children live in orphanages, with 95% of them having living parents, suggests that parents willingly abandon their children. Moreover, this campaign specifically refers to the USA, where orphanages no longer exist. These numbers raise confusion, especially considering the United Nations’ claim that over 100 million children have been orphaned. If only 10 million were in orphanages, does that mean 90 million orphaned children were not in orphanages? Unfortunately, the lack of verifiable information prevents us from determining the accurate figures due to organizations adhering to the United Nations’ previous definition of an orphan as any child who has lost one or both parents through any means.
Although it may seem confusing, that is precisely my intention. The misuse of these two terms has led to widespread confusion, resulting from prolonged incorrect usage. This change in terminology by the United Nations occurred in the mid-1990s, but the importance of using the terms correctly has been recognized since the early 19th century in the United Kingdom and after World War II in the United States. That is why I can confidently state that the USA no longer has orphanages. Both terms have become obsolete as the number of factual orphans has decreased. We have transitioned to using the term “children’s home,” which aligns with the Russian term “Детский дом.” However, misuse of these terms persists, even in countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and the Netherlands, where English is an official language. In the Netherlands, for example, many people incorrectly use “weeshuis” (orphanage) when they mean “kindertehuis” (children’s home), as well as “wees” (orphan) and “vondeling” (foundling). Nevertheless, the individuals I spoke to used the terms correctly because they consulted a dictionary for verification.
This brings me to the main point: while I appreciate the United Nations updating their terminology, the problem could have been avoided if they had not interfered with linguistics and focused solely on their political role. They created a problem that has persisted for about 20 years, and it may take even more time to rectify it fully. The ideal solution would be for the United Nations to adopt an established dictionary and avoid creating their own definitions. Although I have achieved some success with my campaign, the problem still lingers.
In conclusion, the battle for accurate orphanage terminology is ongoing. The recent changes by the United Nations are a step in the right direction, but it will require continued effort to restore clarity and precision to these terms.
Old version (Goal Achieved, Problem Remains)
Over a year ago, I started the fight with anti-institutionalization organizations over the terms “Orphan” and “Orphanages”.
An emotional fight, and a fight I didn’t believe I would even have any success at, which I only continued to stand up for because of an increasing amount of support I received from people all over the world, though primarily from the United States of America.
Among the list of support eventually turned up more and more adoption agencies, and since earlier this year, even government officials and governmental organizations.
Something I am glad to state about that I have done all I could by now, and it is now up to charities, foundations, and organizations alike, to change to factual terms.
The reason I am saying “factual terms” is quite simple, as both terms are not rightly used.
When it comes to orphans, they are children who have lost both parents through death, at least, that is what the dictionary would tell us.
It would also tell that an orphanage is the place where orphans live.
Yes, the dictionary, our first place to check up on what terms actually would mean, but well, we’re just people, as charities, foundations, and organizations don’t agree when it comes to that.
No, they believe the first source should be the United Nations, which is without a doubt weird, however also, as it turned out to be, extremely problematic.
As when it came to the United Nations, they said an orphan was a child who had lost one or both parents..
No, nothing more than that, and anyone who knows their terms, know that the factual term for that is not orphan, but “foundling”, once again also agreed at by every English dictionary I could find.
When I learned about the fact that it was all based on the way the United Nations proclaimed it all, (if she read it: Thank you Sarah!)
I decided to write a blog post, one with a lot of frustration already behind it, and to my surprise, it got reshared in a quite extreme way, once again it included people who left me speechless, among them a Moscow-based official and a Kyiv-based official, to me not the most likeliest to see retweeting the same message.
The reason behind it was quite simple, I know that there are people of the United Nations actually reading this blog, as I have been contacted several times by now who are/were active for the United Nations.
And to my happiness, I got contacted at the start of this month by a like-minded friend that I should check up on the United Nations website, as after her last check a month earlier, the page about “orphans” changed at the United Nations website.
Indeed, it changed, and in a good way, as now the United Nations have switched to, and I quote the UNICEF website: “UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death.”
Factually, no, it is not same as the dictionary tells us, however, it did change something important, which is that it now equals the fact of only being abandoning through death, and no longer “lost” in any other way.
The importance of that change, however small it may seem to some, is actually really big.
To understand, this a direct quotation of the text of a certain anti-institutionalization campaign:
“Around the world, there are 10 million children in orphanages
95% of these children have living parents
But poor and vulnerable families are often forced to give up children they love
Orphanages are not safe places for children;
In fact, they can be deadly.”
For those who follow me at social media, yes, it is indeed part of the text of the campaign of Disability Rights International from some years ago, one of the very few anti-institutionalization campaigns that I do support.
I use this as an example as I have the utmost respect towards Laurie Ahern of DRI, she’s an heroine to me, which is also the reason my campaign for correct terminology has been emotionally difficult.
Still, when you look at that text above, you would believe 10 million children are living in orphanages, 95% of these children have living parents, it wasn’t truly a choice of parents to give them up, and orphanages are not safe places, right?
To add to that, let us look at simply the most important fact about orphanages and the home place of this campaign, which is the USA, which is…
That there are now NO orphanages within the United States of America.
Now, to look at the reality of those numbers, let’s look at the facts of orphans according to the United Nations, which states, yep, that there were over 100 million children orphaned since already years and years ago.
Which quite likely will have you confused, as the United Nations says over 100 million orphaned children, DRI states 10 million were in orphanages back when they made the campaign, so would that mean that 90 million children were not in orphanages while being orphaned.
Well, facts say “no”.
When it comes to this, the reality of the numbers is completely unable to be verified, caused by the lack of information there is because of most organizations following the previous United Nation’s way of saying an orphan is any child who has lost one or both parents through any way or means.
The only thing that could be said is that the children don’t live in orphanages, but they live in children’s homes, but that is actually nitpicking, as we would be talking about a word alone, not the facts behind it.
Which probably caused some confusion, which is my intention.
As when it comes to the 2 terms, a lot of people have no clue how to righteously use them, caused by too many having used them incorrectly for a far too long time.
Sad by all means, especially as this change came to be in the mid-1990s by the United Nations, while the importance of correctly using the terms became extremely important since near 1830 in the United Kingdom, and after the Second World War within the United States of America, which is the reason I could say that the USA has no orphanages.
Both terms became pretty much obsolete, as the amount of factual orphans decreased, as they have been there at both the UK and the USA just as well as the rest of the world, and we saw the switch to the term “Children’s home”, which funnily enough is exactly what you would get when you directly translate the term I have to use in my first language, Russian, “Детский дом”, hence me stating at my earlier posts that we do have the difference, as those who know all other terms will easily be able to agree with.
However, it is not like everyone used the words incorrectly, as seen at Southeast Asia with English as official language, like at Singapore and the Philippines, but also at countries without throughout the world, like those at the country with the best English proficiency among the non-English countries, which is the Netherlands.
Which is actually quite interesting, as like at the English language, also at the Dutch language we see the misuse at the equivalents very often, as people often use incorrectly use “weeshuis”(orphanage) when they mean “kindertehuis”(children’s home), but also “wees”(orphan) and “vondeling”(foundling).
So, why did all I spoke to still end up using it correctly?
Well, the answer is quite simple, they used a dictionary to verify if there wasn’t a correct word…
That is actually the point I want to make throughout all of this.
I am really glad that the United Nations has updated their terminology, really, I am.
However, there wouldn’t have been any problem if the United Nations kept their hands off from linguistics and just stayed at the subjects where they should be important, which is the political side of our world.
That’s eventually the simple truth, they made a problem for about 20 years, and it is quite likely that it may become even more years to get the world restored…
As however I would twist or turn this, the true solution would be that the United Nations would just pick a dictionary they follow, and not create their own personal one.
Which indeed means, I may have had part of the success I wanted, but in reality, the problem remains…