An orphanage is
no place for a child

Campaign Resources


Definitions of commonly used words and terms in the field of child welfare.

Children's village

Many people, particularly those who run small orphanages, do not use the word orphanage and prefer 'children's villages' or 'small family houses' or 'family-style group homes' to describe their organisations. For statistical purposes there needs to be a dividing line drawn between foster care and orphanages, or institutional care.

The following definitions have been adopted in the Council of Europe's recommendations on childcare (2005). A large institution is characterised by having 25 or more children living together in one building. A small institution or children's home refers to a building housing 11 to 24 children. 'Family-like' homes accommodate 10 children or less, usually separated with 2 to 3 children in each bedroom.

For every definition, there are some who disagree and the debate over the fine dividing lines between what is an orphanage, and what isn't, is on-going. The truth lies in the eyes of the child. Does the child feel as though he or she lives in a normal family like other children in the community?

Community support

Community support is largely synonymous with what many people know as social services, except that the term social services implies an organisation funded by and controlled by local government. Community support has a wider definition. It can be supplied by local government, but it can also be organised locally from within the community and it can be funded and provided by international or local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or by charities.

Community support and social services are safety nets for the needy in a community. It can be the provision of:

  • medical care
  • support for the elderly
  • support for the disabled
  • adult and child education
  • pre and post-natal care
  • support for young mothers
  • child helplines for abused and abandoned children
  • fostering services

Effective community support helps pre-empt problems, in the same way that good policing should pre-empt crime, not only pick up the pieces after the event. Good community support identifies those in the community at risk, helps stop the problem getting worse and provides resources to turn the corner.


Deinstitutionalisation is the process of removing institutions as an option from child care systems. This involves changing national systems of child welfare. A sub-process of this systemic change, is finding family homes for children currently resident in orphanages.

Successful deinstitutionalisation is accompanied by building the capacity of social services to run fostering and adoption services for children at risk of separation. Other support systems for families at risk can include facilities such as day care centres for disabled children or young babies. These can allow a mother to go to work so that she can earn a wage and support her family. After school clubs may also meet a similar need.

Young and unmarried mothers may be ostracized by their families. A mother and baby support facility can assist them in their early days together. This can be enhanced with counselling to the grandparents and extended family. This is a much shorter intervention which keeps families together at less cost and without harm to the child.

Hasty deinstitutionalisation, without properly thought out alternatives, can be detrimental.

Setting up new family-based services is not only considered better for the social, physical and cognitive development of children but it's cost is up to six times lower once the transition has been funded.

Duty bearer

By ratifying the different United Nations human rights treaties, national governments automatically assume the principal role of guaranteeing these rights, or, in the Rights-based Approach terminology, they become the 'principal duty bearers' and must take all necessary procedures to guarantee their citizens' rights.

This obligation requires governments to abstain from carrying out, sponsoring or tolerating any practice, policy or legal measure violating the integrity of individuals or impinging on their freedom to access resources to satisfy their needs. It also requires that national and local legislative and administrative codes guarantee those rights.

The obligation to protect obliges government to prevent the violation of rights by other individuals or non-state actors. Where violations do occur governments must guarantee access to legal remedies.

Other duty bearers

Although governments play the role of the principal duty bearer, there are other non-government entities that have obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of people.

Parents have an obligation to protect and care for children, teachers for students, police for crime suspects, doctors and nurses for patients, employers for employees etc.

There are many organisations that put themselves voluntarily into positions of duty bearers, such as NGOs, aid agencies and some private sector organisations.

Family environment

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (which all bar two countries in the world have signed-up to) states clearly that the family is the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children. It also states that a child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment.

Common usage of the word family implies parents and children living together. In today's world, even in 'developed' countries, children living with both biological parents in the same home is not to be assumed, but the concept of living in a family environment, as opposed to in an institution like an orphanage, is commonly understood.

There are debates about whether small family homes, run by some charities, are deemed family environments. The debates focus on the number of children in a home and some people propose that if six or less children (some say eight of less) live in such a home it should be classed a family environment. Especially when a number of these homes are located together, in a 'village', under the same administration, it becomes quite clear that children do not feel that they are living in a family in the normal sense of the word.

We use the term 'family environment' to imply a normal family unit in its common usage, while taking into consideration that the parent could be an uncle or aunt or a foster parent, guardian or adoptive parent.

Institutional care

Institutional Care, in the context of child welfare, implies an organised, routine and somewhat impersonal living arrangement for children and a professional relationship, rather than parental relationship, between the adults and children.

Institutional care could include children admitted to hospital, children in emergency care and those who attend boarding schools and summer camps, although those are not common usages.

The word orphanage implies that the children are orphans, whereas the vast majority of children in so-called orphanages have a living parent. They are either abandoned, abused, disabled or simply very poor.

REPLACE uses the terms 'institutional care' and 'orphanage' somewhat interchangeably. We tend to use institutional care when we are writing on a more technical level.


Common usage of the word implies a young child whose parents are no longer alive, however one has to be careful when reading statistics, technical reports and studies as some people use the word orphan differently.

UNICEF and UNAIDS label any child that has lost one parent as an orphan. American adoption law defines an orphan as a child under 16 years old who has no parents because of death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents.

REPLACE uses the term orphan in its common usage, i.e. a child with no living parents. This is important as the word orphanage implies institutional care for children without parents, which is not the case as most children in orphanages have one or more parents alive.


One of the most misused words today. In common usage today, and historically, an orphanage provides residential care for children without parents, but most of the children in most of the orphanages today do have one or both parents alive.

There used to be places called Foundling Hospitals for abandoned children and for children whose parents needed some respite from social stigma or economic hardship. Children in Foundling Hospitals would often be reclaimed by a parent after a few years.

Orphanages command a higher level of support from society due to orphans being deemed as deserving, whereas foundlings often carried the stigma of failure or sin or blame of their parents. Orphans were seen as the deserving poor, while foundlings (certainly their parents) were often seen as being to blame for their predicament.

Not that we use the word foundling much today, but the vast majority of children in orphanages today would have been classed as foundlings.

More than 4 out of 5 children living in institutions are not orphans. This amount rises to 98% in Eastern Europe. The nature of orphanages means that they often fail to provide the individual sustained attention and stimulation a child would get from growing up within a family. In many cases the children living in them are at risk of harm. There are also many reports of orphanages being abusive or having very high death rates.

Orphanages are a particular issue for babies and children under three years old as they can stop them making the attachments that they should. These attachments can be broken by staff changing jobs and children moving to other rooms as they get older. In reality a very small proportion of AIDS orphans are in orphanages and there is no way orphanages could be a sustainable option for all AIDS orphans, even if it was desirable.

Rights-based approach to development

The field of development has seen three major approaches to dealing with social problems. The charity model is almost instinctive to all of us. When we see or hear of a poor or a needy person, we are tempted to donate some money, or materials to help. This model is called the Charity Model (or sometimes called the Generosity Model). For hundreds of years, this was the prevailing model for dealing with social problems. It is based on the assumption that the philanthropists (donors) know the needs of the poor and the donation would meet the need.

Around the middle of the 20th century, development workers started to shift into a new model, the Needs-Based Approach. They noted that the Charity Model is not adequate to address the needs of the poor and needy and that the poor and needy continued to be poor and needy as they increasingly depended on the philanthropists to satisfy their needs.

The solution was to base the interventions on the needs as expressed by the poor themselves. This approach came with a very important assumption that the donors do not have the answer to what the poor and needy actually need. Rather, the poor and needy must participate in the process of identifying their real needs and the means to address these needs.

The Needs-based approach had a few shortcomings. It:

  • kept the image of needy people as beneficiaries of other benevolent people
  • emphasized the benevolent approach of "let's help those in need whenever we can" mentality
  • asked benevolent people, or governments, to meet the needs of the poor and disadvantaged only if resources are available
  • carried out interventions mostly at micro levels with minimal efforts at the macro levels, nationally or internationally
  • implied no obligations towards political circles and other influential stakeholders

Core to the Rights-Based Approach (RBA) is accountability. All people have rights and are called right holders. The people or entities who are obliged to deliver and ensure these rights are called duty bearers.

We can think of anyone as a right holder as well as a duty bearer. However, most of the time, duty bearers are the governments that are responsible for protecting people's rights and their access to these rights. Most of the time, governments are accountable to people and to the international community in terms of what they do to protect and deliver human rights in their countries. RBA also recognizes that other non-government organisations could be duty bearers.

Accountability is done by having governments, as the principal duty bearers:

  • accept responsibility for the impact they have on people's lives
  • co-operate by providing information, undertaking transparent processes and hearing people's views
  • respond adequately to those views

The following table provides a comparison between the Needs-based approach and the Rights-based approach.

Needs based approachRight based approach
Based on assessed needsBased on established human rights
Needs are the point of reference, which implies interventions at a local or micro levelViolations of rights are taken as the starting point, which leads into analysis and actions at the structural and macro levels
Needs are pertinent to the group that has such a needRights are universal and apply to all people everywhere
Considers finding more resourcesConsiders the redistribution of existing resources
Keeps away from politics and policy making processesPolitics is at the very heart of the development process
Needs are handled individuallyRights are non-negotiable and indivisible
May be solved by addressing the symptoms (if we provide resources to cover the needs)Must analyse and address structural, systemic, and even, global causes of problems
Asks state officials and power holders for helpHolds state officials and power holders accountable
Putting needy people in an inferior position by asking others to meet their needsHelping people to restore their dignity by claiming their rights as human beings and citizens
No obligation to meet the needs. Needs are met when resources are availableStates, power holders and international entities have obligations to fulfil the rights
Has a tendency to care for those who are in need, but not those who are most needy. (Low cost, high impact preference)Has a tendency to work more with people whose rights are most violated or denied
Aims at relieving sufferingAims at addressing structural injustices
Usually, it is not legally binding to the stakeholdersCarries a legal force to development work
Encourages participation from within the community, with possible collaboration with other groupsForces collective action and alliances from different groups
Needs based approachRight based approach

More info about the rights-based approach

Rights holder

Every human being is inherently a rights holder who should enjoy universal human rights that must be guaranteed by a duty bearer. At the most basic level, rights are defined by international laws, declarations and conventions and those in positions of responsibility, mainly governments, should comply with the law and enable people to live their lives according to those rights.

The REPLACE Campaign is supported by International Child Campaign

Child Protection Policy in Relation to Campaigning and Website Images (pdf 370 KB)