Beware of calls to ‘rescue’ India’s ‘Covid orphans’

News reports of children being orphaned by Covid-19 deaths in India raise the spectre of a generation of children without adequate parental care. But international responses that favour solutions like building orphanages and seeking adoption for these children are misguided and can lead to child exploitation. In this post, Kristen Cheney explains why, and how you can better support children orphaned during the pandemic.

Photo: Charu Chaturvedi (Unsplash)

A year ago, my colleagues and I were already forewarning of calls to ‘rescue’ ‘Covid orphans’. As care reform advocates, we are familiar with the pattern: after every disaster—natural or manmade, instant (‘Haitian earthquake orphans’) or slow-burn (‘AIDS orphans’)—media coverage laments the situation of children left without parental care. So when Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic last year, we worried—not so much about whether as about when we would start to see calls for assistance to these orphans. It has taken a while, but now, with the horrible escalation of Covid-19 in India, these stories are starting to emerge.

Children’s advocates worry because these calls tend to take the form of ‘orphan rescue’ narratives, which usually spur desires to go to the children and build massive orphanages, as well as demands for international adoption. And yet we have known for decades that these responses, though well-meaning, are at best deeply flawed and counter to children’s overall wellbeing. Over half a century of child development research has documented the deleterious effects of institutionalisation and risks in international adoption, prompting the United Nations to adopt the Alternative Care Guidelines, which call for institutionalisation and international adoption as last resorts, favouring instead family-based care solutions.

Orphans don’t need ‘rescuing’; they need protection

At worst, ‘orphan rescue’ narratives have spurred corruption and exploitation of children, prompting perverse incentives to traffic children into institutions and even international adoptions for profit. In fact, this has profit motive been so prevalent that I have been tracking its development in what I call the global Orphan Industrial Complex.

While children are indeed losing their parents at alarming rates to Covid-19 in India, that doesn’t mean that foreigners should rush in to build orphanages or seek to adopt orphans. Care reform advocates like myself have long argued that not only are these solutions bad for children; with these good intentions inevitably comes an element of criminality. Under such circumstances, the Orphan Industrial Complex has a way of swooping in and commodifying such children, leading to exploitation (of donors and ‘orphans’ alike as ‘fake’ orphanages pop up to raise funds that line the pockets of traffickers), increasing corruption as people seeking to adopt search for loopholes to legal and child safeguarding measures, and even child trafficking into orphanages and adoption.

A recent BBC article pointed to such early warning signs occurring in India: a grandmother caring for her grandchildren orphaned by Covid-19 is quoted as saying, “A lot of people are coming to ask for adoption [of her grandchildren],” suggesting that the vultures are already descending.

Support for families of orphans and doing away with orphanages

Yet, the Indian government and NGOs have been working for many years on strengthening their child protection and alternative care policies to prevent such exploitation of ‘orphans’. For example, for the past five years, India has been working on shutting down orphanages while also strengthening their child protection systems to better prevent children’s separation from their families in the first place. Continued external support to orphanages only undermines such efforts.

When Covid-19 cases in India started spiking in April, however, so did the number of children left without parental care. Reports started rolling off the press, sometimes detailing the danger of exploitation of those children by unscrupulous traffickers hoping to take advantage of their vulnerabilities. In response, Indian advocates started posting informational memes on social media that detail legal and social advice about ‘what to do with Covid orphans’ [Fig 1]. NGOs have helped set up community helpdesks and outreach programmes to identify and assist families’ access to government schemes, medical facilities, and PPE distribution. To prevent a massive institutionalisation of children left behind, the Prime Minister’s Office declared a support and empowerment program for children affected by the pandemic that includes free education, free health insurance, and a monthly stipend for youth from 18 to 23 years old [Fig 2]. This is a commendable effort that will provide support to extended families to care for children without drastically uprooting them from all that they know. After all, the loss of one or both parents is already hard enough to deal with.

Reinvesting in communities

Whenever I warn people of the Orphan Industrial Complex and its perpetuation of inappropriate charitable responses to orphanhood, they often ask where they should direct their assistance instead. One thing that advocates have lamented is that it is so much easier to raise money for harmful orphanages or adoptions than it is to raise money for child protection and family preservation efforts. Yet we know that these are in the best interests of children.

So, I encourage people to support care reforms that keep children in families or family-based care whenever possible. This ensures children’s rights to family, community life, name, nation, and identity (as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child); families are where children grow best. But we also need to build the capacities of these systems by, for example, training social workers and supporting communities with services like education, health, and parenting support to help them to take care of their own children.

Finally, we can urge our friends, families, and governments to divest from orphanages (after all, there is a reason why we no longer have orphanages in Europe and North America; why do we consider warehousing children in institutions an appropriate response to crises abroad??) and support moratoria on international adoption such as that recently issued by the Dutch government.

Instead, now is the time to reinvest in communities, such as those in India that bear the burden of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. We can strengthen them to enact proven care reforms that allow children—even those who find themselves in adverse circumstances like India’s new ‘Covid orphans’—to flourish.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS (2017) and co-editor of the volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification and Objectification (2019).

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  • Helen Hintjens
    15 June 2021

    I think this is a very brave piece, in the face of the sentimentalisation of childhood instead of its embedding in proper social care networks across society. Good for Kristen, she has drawn the lessons of centuries of abuse in the global and colonial Orphan Industrial Complex. The bones are still being unearthed from the schools and orphanages, places of punishment for indigenous children in the global North. The most recent reported case was in Canada, but the same pattern applies across the board, from Jersey and Ireland to Wales, Australia and beyond. Perverse incentives and perverse sentiments, rooted in the desire to ‘do the right thing’. The road to hell and all that… And again, thanks Kristen.

  • Josephine
    15 June 2021

    Thank you for that very interesting article that will hopefully come as an eye-opener to many! I would just like to warn of taking the stated goals of the PM CARES fund at face value. PM CARES has been unter huge criticism from activists in India because it is an undemocratic, intransparent fund rife with corruption. Nobody really knows where the money paid in it comes from or goes to – it’s likely Modi’s way of shuffling money to the private corporations that helped him get elected. So I wouldn’t count on it actually ever paying the money it promised to orphaned children and would also be weary of unintentionally lauding or promoting an authoritarian leader’s efforts to circumvent the normal budget process by setting up his own fund. You likely didn’t know about this, so I just thought I’d bring it to your attention for any future articles. Thanks again for sharing this!