Another Word for Orphan is _____BLANK_______.

Words, names, labels… I'm working on a brochure for Shishur Sevay, with a deadline of one week.  I need to get it done and out.  I'm slow because I keep getting lost in pictures, and memories.  "My kids are sooooo cute; I must use this picture too."  I'm slowed down by the work of honing our message, like sculpture.  I start with the big blob of clay and carve and carve, put back some pieces, carve more.  It's taking me a long time as I work on the words related to disabilities.  I found a wonderful helpful site: Kathie Snow writes of People First Language, namely seeing the person before the disability.  The terminology changes over time, because it is an attempt to change attitudes, and sometimes the new terms become infected with the negative attitudes and so we work again to find words to correct the problem.  It's a critical process, even in its evolution.

I have not had to spend any time assessing the right terms for orphan, because there is only one that I know of, namely orphan.  It's a negative term; it evokes pity; it implies suffering, poverty, illiteracy.  My girls HATE the word.  One day they came home and asked, "Why do they call us orphans?  We have a mother; we live in a house! We are not poor."  They are trying to say that orphan doesn't define them, that it is not a single identity.  But there is no vast literature about other words. 

The definition of orphan often depends on the purpose of assigning the label.  UNICEF has divided orphans into groups depending on whether children lost one parent or two.  Thus there are single orphans and double orphans.  A single orphan can be an maternal or paternal orphan. This work came out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and an attempt to categorize children for assigning services. 

Orphan in the NGO world is often used very broadly.  I spent a number of years visiting orphanages in West Bengal.  I worked closely with one for several years.  One year I brought my younger daughter to see what I was doing.  She had heard so much about this place.  When we arrived there were only about 15 girls instead of the 150+ girls usually there.  It seemed deserted.  The director told us, "The government hasn't given us food money so I sent them all home."  I asked, "HOME????"  She told me that only a few were kept back because their families were too far away.  Cici turned to me, "Fake?"  Yes, it is fake as an orphanage.  What it is, and what most such places are, is a hostel for poor children.  The children are housed there and sent out to school.  It's an important service, but it is NOT an orphanage.

I seem to have lots of stories about orphans.  I visited a new orphanage, one just starting.  I asked about orphans.  He said, "I only take orphans if their parents are willing to sign them over to me until 18."  To him there was no contradiction.  Orphan, poor, single parent… all the same.  In each of these places, an organization asking about numbers of orphans would get inflated numbers.  I'm not sure it would occur to anyone to look more deeply.  Or, the census of the home would be taken and since the place is listed as an orphanage, all the children would be assumed to be orphans.

I have another orphan story.  Adoptees often visit us at Shishur Sevay, especially if they are from Kolkata.  An adoptee came who wanted to visit one of Mother Teresa's Homes.  We wanted to go because the mother of two children I sponsor was working there.  Gibi knew some people there too.  This home had a section for disturbed women, and a separate area for orphan children.  We visited both.

The orphan ward was a large area up on the second floor, with cribs almost wall to wall.  Forty children about 2-4 years were in separate cribs.  It was afternoon, rest time, and most were quiet.    I asked about these particular children, why they are there.  "They are sick, so we take care of them."  I was surprised because they didn't look sick.  I've been on plenty of pediatric hospital wards.  Then I asked, "Do they get any education?"   I was thinking about the pre-school type of teaching.  I was told, "No, they aren't here long enough."  I learned that the children stay 3-4 months and that they come to be given nutritious food and then sent home to their families.  I thought about what a four month separation from family meant to a toddler.  I thought about all the volunteers who come and get attached to these "motherless children".  (I guess I just found one other term for orphan — motherless child).  Our visiting adoptee was present for all this discussion.  I was surprised then to read her report of her trip, that the high point was being with the orphans at Mother Teresa's.  It just doesn't click for people.  An orphan with parents is still an orphan, such is the power and imagery of the word orphan.

I have another orphan story.  Cici and I visited Dakinishwar, a Kali temple just North of Kolkata.  Roaming children approach visitors, hands outstretched, begging for money.  "We are orphans.  We have no mother or father."  This day I started to chat with one of the boys, maybe 8-10 years.  I can't remember exactly what I said.  I do remember that Cici was terribly embarrassed by what I was doing and stood at some distance.  I asked the boy, "you go to school?"  I knew he didn't.  I asked where he lived, just chatting… and then I asked, "What does your father do?"  "He has a rickshaw."  I went on, "And your mother. what does she do?"  "She begs, like this…"  Here we were, the orphan and the foreigner, and he was telling me about his family.  I don't think he realized the contradiction.  He just felt comfortable enough with me to chat, one on one…. Did I give him money before I went on?  Of course.  Is it illegal? I think so.  I know there is a campaign to stop people from giving.  Usually I don't give.  It's complex.  I gave the orphan his wage, a good performance.  But it also gives one pause to think because this was a child with two working parents.  He could have gone to school.  The issues are not simply ones of money.

Even as I write I struggle for alternative words, and I can't really find any.  I think that is because there is no "orphan voice", only others speaking on behalf of orphans, and there are economic implications in the use of the word. I have four children with severe disabilities.  None can talk.  Do they know whether they should be referred to as "disabled" or "with disabilities" or "differently abled" or "special needs?"  No, but they have people around them protecting their interests.  They advocacy groups of themselves, their families, teachers, institutions, all willing to engage in the exercise of finding constructive and non-demeaning terminology.  

Here are some thoughts from the girls, and from me:

I am who I am


Free Agent Children


Children Against the Odds

Children unencumbered

The realities are harsh when I think about it.  My children here were abandoned, dumped, sold, forgotten, left to fend for themselves.  Two of our girls with severe disabilities have closed up earring holes.  Once they had families.  Someone pierced their ears, made them pretty, then dumped them.  The children cannot speak.  They cannot tell us.

One problem with the term orphan, is that it carries shame, as if the child has done something, become something bad — the child carries the crime of the adults. 

"Children of parents who dump them?"  No, not just parents.  To be an orphan in society, means that no one else stepped in.  No relative took responsibility for them.  In fact, their stories are of relatives who sold or dumped them after the death or disappearance of the parents.  I hear stories like, "My mother died and then my uncle took me and my sister to a pond and left us there."  Pretty much, orphans are kids who have nothing, no one.  That's how I define them, no family, no community… adrift until caught, somewhere by someone, for better or worse, more often for worse.

The Economics of "Orphan"

The term orphan is often used for raising funds.  Therefore the wider the definition, the higher the numbers and the greater the funds.  For instance, I always thought of children with one parent as "children of single parents" not maternal or paternal orphans.  A change in definition changes the size of the pool.

Orphan in the adoption world often represents the number of children who "should" be available for adoption.  Broadening the definition evokes more sense of need.  But if "orphanages" are mostly places for poor people to leave their children for education, and where parents may regularly visit, then the use of the term is deceptive.  The numbers are also deceptive. In West Bengal, most institutions will not take a child unless a parent or family member signs them in and agrees to take responsibility for them at 18 years when they are no longer eligible to stay.  In my early years in Kolkata I kept wondering, "where are the orphans?  I couldn't find them."  I was told at that time that they were all in government institutions and that you couldn't get to them.  Sukanya for blog-1368W

Well, we got 12 of them out (by court order, not the scaffolding you see in the picture).  The ones who understand and feel the power of language feel badly being referred to as orphans. They feel the term as, "I must have been so bad my family didn't keep me."  I tell them they are courageous survivors because it takes courage to fight internal and external demons in order to change our lives.  Help me out there!  Help us find words, help them find words….. 


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Manguli
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 06:22:44

    The post asked the question of how to define an orphan and a ” neutron child ” came to my mind.
    A neutron particle, should be able to bind with other particles. It is not complete on it’s own, but constitutes a . Once combines with other elements a neutron can be part of an atom
    It wouldnt reflect the negativeness you describe.
    Just an idea


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April 2011
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