It should be natural to assume that orphanages exist to protect and nurture the vulnerable children in their care. Sadly, this is often far from the truth. This ‘service’ is often run as a business, with exploited children as the main product.

Around 8 million children are estimated to be living in orphanages around the world. 80% of these children are not orphans – they have at least one living parent.

As too many example show, children are taken from their families so their ‘carers’ can make a profit – running an orphanage can be a lucrative enterprise.

Zafina Yonjan was one of these children. Believing that she was going to Kathmandu to receive an education, her parents paid a recruiter a large sum of money to take care of her. Instead, she was taken to an orphanage in Nepal where she was abused and exploited. It was only years later, after she got out of the first orphanage into a better institution, that she was able to trace her family and reunite with them.

Orphanages make money not only from the amounts paid by desperate families, but also by the growing phenomenon of voluntourism. Well-meaning Western tourists pay money to stay at the orphanage and help, and often make substantial donations.

The growth of the voluntourism industry drives demand for poor but adorable children, and has led to an explosion of orphanages around the world. For the first time, the international community is beginning to recognise that this is a form of child trafficking.

The importance of identity in this trade was made clear in a recent investigative report by The Guardian:

The orphanage owner might then falsify the child’s identity by placing a notice in the newspaper, claiming it had been found lost. If no one came forward to identify the child, the government would certify it as an orphan.


It doesn’t take long for a child with a forged identity, or with no identity at all, to become lost in a vast system. The result is devastating for the many parents who have tried to reclaim their ‘orphaned’ children: bureaucratic roadblocks, children moved from place to place, and no way to prove that a child is theirs.

A resilient, non-alterable identity could help address some of these problems. It would be far harder for recruiters to produce ‘invisible’ children. Read our latest report on how as a global community we can help turn invisible children into invincible ones.

Working together, we can help turn around stories of lost childhoods. In fact, this better world might look a lot like Katya’s story. Homeless and vulnerable, Katya was trapped by a forced-begging operation and her baby daughter held hostage. She escaped, but without her daughter Masha. She found help from Hope and Homes for Children, a charity developing innovative programs to help families stay together and keep children out of orphanages, including though their support for child registration. Together they were able to find Masha and bring her back to her mother.

WIN co-founder and CEO Dr. Mariana Dahan was recently appointed Ambassador to Hope and Homes for Children.