In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents due to death is called an orphan. When referring to animals, only the mother's condition is usually relevant (i.e. if the female parent has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father's condition).
Various groups use different definitions to identify orphans. One legal definition used in the United States is a minor bereft through "death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents".
In the common use, an orphan does not have any surviving parent to care for them. However, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), and other groups label any child who has lost one parent as an orphan. In this approach, a maternal orphan is a child whose mother has died, a paternal orphan is a child whose father has died, and a double orphan is a child/teen/infant who has lost both parents. This contrasts with the older use of half-orphan to describe children who had lost only one parent.
Orphans are relatively rare in developed countries, because most children can expect both of their parents to survive their childhood. Much higher numbers of orphans exist in war-torn nations such as Afghanistan.
|Orphans as percentage |
of all children
|Latin America & Caribbean||8,166||7.4%|
|Country||Orphans as % of all children||AIDS orphans as % of orphans||Total orphans||Total orphans (AIDS related)||Maternal (total)||Maternal (AIDS related)||Paternal (total)||Paternal (AIDS related)||Double (total)||Double (AIDS related)|
|Botswana (1990)||5.9||3.0||34,000||1,000||14,000||< 100||23,000||1,000||2,000||< 100|
|Lesotho (1990)||10.6||2.9||73,000||< 100||31,000||< 100||49,000||< 100||8,000||< 100|
Famous orphans include world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, the Hebrew prophet Moses, and the Muslim prophet Muhammad; writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, and Leo Tolstoy; athletes such as Aaron Hernandez. The American orphan Henry Darger portrayed the horrible conditions of his orphanage in his art work. Other notable orphans include entertainment greats such as Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Ray Charles and Frances McDormand, and innumerable fictional characters in literature and comics.
Wars, epidemics (such as AIDS) and poverty have led to many children becoming orphans. The Second World War (1939-1945), with its massive numbers of deaths and vast population movements, left large numbers of orphans in many countries--with estimates for Europe ranging from 1,000,000 to 13,000,000. Judt (2006) estimates there were 9,000 orphaned children in Czechoslovakia, 60,000 in the Netherlands 300,000 in Poland and 200,000 in Yugoslavia, plus many more in the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, China and elsewhere.
Orphaned characters are extremely common as literary protagonists, especially in children's and fantasy literature. The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more interesting and adventurous lives, by freeing them from familial obligations and controls, and depriving them of more prosaic lives. It creates characters that are self-contained and introspective and who strive for affection. Orphans can metaphorically search for self-understanding through attempting to know their roots. Parents can also be allies and sources of aid for children, and removing the parents makes the character's difficulties more severe. Parents, furthermore, can be irrelevant to the theme a writer is trying to develop, and orphaning the character frees the writer from the necessity to depict such an irrelevant relationship; if one parent-child relationship is important, removing the other parent prevents complicating the necessary relationship. All these characteristics make orphans attractive characters for authors.
Orphans are common in fairy tales, such as most variants of Cinderella.
A number of well-known authors have written books featuring orphans. Examples from classic literature include Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Among more recent authors, A. J. Cronin, Lemony Snicket, A. F. Coniglio, Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling, as well as some less well-known authors of famous orphans like Little Orphan Annie have used orphans as major characters. One recurring storyline has been the relationship that the orphan can have with an adult from outside their immediate family as seen in Lyle Kessler's play Orphans.
Orphans are especially common as characters in comic books. Almost all the most popular heroes are orphans: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, The Flash, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Green Arrow were all orphaned. Orphans are also very common among villains: Bane, Catwoman, and Magneto are examples. Lex Luthor, Deadpool, and Carnage can also be included on this list, though they killed one or both of their parents. Supporting characters befriended by the heroes are also often orphans, including the Newsboy Legion and Rick Jones.
Many religious texts, including the Bible and the Quran, contain the idea that helping and defending orphans is a very important and God-pleasing matter. The religious leaders Moses and Muhammad were orphaned as children. Several scriptural citations describe how orphans should be treated:
The industrial revolution touched both villages and cities, with migration from one to the other going hand-in-hand with urban overpopulation and severe poverty. Urban population growth also led to an increase in abandonment, the poor swinging between finding work, begging or claiming social assistance from the State as a means of integrating themselves and their family, including their children, into society.