An orphanage is
no place for a child

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United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in November 1989. It evolved from the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the League of Nations in September 1924.

This in turn was inspired by proclamations drafted by the founder of Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb, in 1923. Jebb's initial document had the following criteria:

  • The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  • The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  • The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.
  • The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  • The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.

All bar two countries in the world have signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948. It was a consequence of the painful experience of World War II and contains the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.

It has been expanded by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to jointly become the International Bill of Human Rights. The Bill of Human Rights became international law in 1976.

Since the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the international community has developed a legally binding framework for the protection of human rights. These legal documents have created norms and standards internationally.

Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children

These Guidelines are an extension of, or an implementation guide for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It's an important document that is the basis for many legal judgements about children and about the actions of those who look after them.

The Guidelines support efforts to keep children in, or return them to, the care of their family or, failing this, to find another appropriate and permanent solution, including adoption and kafala of Islamic law.

The Guidelines, like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognise that the family is the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth, well-being and protection of children. It states that efforts should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his/her parents, or when appropriate, other close family members.

Finally, removal of a child from the care of the family should be seen as a measure of last resort and should be, whenever possible, temporary and for the shortest possible duration.

Community and family support

Strengthening the family unit is critical to preventing children being placed in orphanages in the first place. Some break-ups are due to catastrophic events, such as natural disasters (earthquakes etc.) and violent conflict, but the majority of problems are caused by poverty and prejudice.

An extract from the Faith to Action report sums up the core difficulty of promoting community and family support ... "The most promising solutions must look to more sustainable alternatives that focus on preventing the conditions that lead to the need for institutional care. Most donors have a concrete image of what an orphanage looks like. An orphanage is a physical place that can be seen, touched, and visited. In contrast, most donors are not familiar with the programs that help keep children in families. These preventive programs are harder to immediately see and describe, but their benefits can be far greater and they are able to reach many more children."


Deinstitutionalisation is the process of finding family homes for children currently resident in orphanages. It became best-practice in many developed countries in the 1960s and 1970s. It has been happening in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and is now encouraged by the EU for new entrants. It is also starting in Africa and Asia although often at institution level rather than as a national policy.

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.

Family-based support services are not only considered better for the social, physical and cognitive development of children but they cost significantly less to run than institutions.

Harm done by orphanages

Here are four broad studies into institutional care and the reasons why community and family support is much better. These reports are a good place to start.

The Alliance for Forgotten Australians and the Care Leavers Australia Network have published some powerful research.

An extract from the Senate report sums up the core message of the REPLACE Campaign regarding harm done by institutional care ... "Apart from specific acts of emotional, mental, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, institutional life itself is inherently abusive."

We highly recommend the film 'Oranges and Sunshine' and the book it was based on 'Empty Cradles' by Margaret Humphreys. The film and the book are about the work of the Child Migrants Trust in reuniting families, reclaiming identity and restoring dignity. They contain powerful, disturbing and moving accounts of children placed in orphanages.

The REPLACE Campaign is supported by International Child Campaign

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