Recognising the plight of orphans

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The world would have been a nicer place if no children had to live without their parents. No tender minds would wake up in the middle of the night feeling scared about what would happen the next day. But the world is not nice. So we have wars, famines, epidemics and poverty wreaking havoc on our life, and leaving thousands of orphans in their wake every year.

This April, a group of young volunteers under a platform called World Orphan Centre are drawing attention to the sufferings of orphans and homeless children in an effort to make nations take better care of their children. The activists, besides other demands, are also pushing for policy changes that would hold governments accountable for achieving certain goals specific to the children.

Part of their attention has been focused on getting the United Nations to allocate a specific day for the orphans – World Orphans Day – on April 20. A specific day, the activists say, would bring greater attention to the condition of the orphans, who mostly live on the fringes of society, without access to basic amenities, and are faced with the gloomy prospect of growing up to become a burden for their society.

Personally, I am not much of a believer in the effectiveness of special days. I don’t think observing one day of all days in the year can impact the outcome of a movement or cause. But given the neglect with which a vast majority of children around the world are treated, I am tempted to change my mind. If having a day for the orphans can make these unfortunate souls feel a little more loved, and help improve their future prospects, so be it.

According to an estimate by UNICEF, there were over 132 million orphans in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. Their number, understandably, would be greater by now. The UN definition of orphans varies from established concepts in some countries where “a child must have lost both parents to qualify as an orphan.”

But in countries that the statistics were drawn from, sometimes even a surviving mother cannot be of much help because of the largely patriarchal nature of their societies and their underdeveloped economies. This gives credence to the UN move to incorporate children of single surviving parents in the definition. However, the difference in terminology should not deflect our attention from the immediate problem at hand – the need for rehabilitation.

Orphans or no orphans, according to Mohammad Aman Ullah, the founder of WOC, all children in need of shelter and care should be treated equally, and all factors/conditions that render them vulnerable should be addressed with equal attention.

In Bangladesh, where the demand for an orphan’s day is gaining momentum, a number of organisations are working to give the children a fresh start in life. One of them, Sajida Foundation, has seven centres in Dhaka and Chittagong cities to rehabilitate slum and pavement dwellers including orphaned, abandoned children. The centres, run with help from Concern Worldwide and local patrons, give them shelter, education and healthcare as part of a comprehensive development strategy.

Aman Ullah thinks such intervention by non-state actors is key to the success of the drive to solve issues facing the orphans. “We inspire local organisations and individuals to step forward and help the orphans. The orphans are a particularly vulnerable group, and they need our support, which means both individual and state initiatives are needed to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities that they are exposed to,” he says.

Finding new families for the orphans can be an effective way to reduce the risks. Perhaps it is poetic justice that – as Adam Johnson said in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son – “orphans are the only ones who get to choose their fathers, and they love them twice as much.”

The same goes for the people welcoming orphans in their family.

On Thursday, volunteers in approximately 150 countries are expected to celebrate this year’s World Orphans Day responding to a call by WOC, which is mobilising global support for the day. The volunteers, selected from One Young World, World Economic Forum, and Global Shapers, as well as local students will pledge to create better opportunities for the orphans under the slogan – “Our Kids, Our Future.”

I think this is a unique opportunity for Bangladesh to lead a cause-based movement that has a global impact. Our orphans in general may have a different experience from those living in areas affected by armed conflicts, famine or epidemics, many of whom have witnessed their parents being butchered in the most appalling circumstances, but the pain of losing a parent or both is all the same.

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