ARTICLES The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War: A National Survey ...
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War:
A National Survey
SUMA NARAYAN REDDY
The article reports about the important findings of a national survey on disadvan-
taged orphans in Eritrea, one among the 15 poorest countries of the world. Thou-
sands of children were made orphans owing to the long drawn out war situation
this country had been gripped with. The survey is an attempt to unearth the back-
ground characteristics of these disadvantaged orphans, the circumstances of pa-
rental loss, their living situations, and the various problems encountered by them.
The present survey is based on 50,782 disadvantaged orphans where the majority
of the orphans were paternal orphans followed by maternal orphans, and a few
were complete orphans. They belonged to extremely poor families, and suffered
from all kinds of deprivations, including schooling opportunities, medical care,
food and clothing, apart from social and psychological problems of various kinds.
A. few of them were further affected by disabilities and chronic health problems.
Analysis indicated that various factors such as loss of one parent or both, age,
availability of adult care and type of care, economic status, schooling opportu-
nity, age at loss of mother, cause of mother's death, and health status seemed to
contribute to the vulnerability of these orphans.
Dr. Suma Narayan Reddy is Research Expert, Ministry of Labour and Human
Welfare, Asmara, Eritrea.
Every child who is a victim of any form of abuse or neglect has the
right to physical and psychological and social reintegration. (CRC,
I N T R O D U C T I O N
Orphaned children are one of the most vulnerable, helpless and needy
groups of children in difficult circumstances all over the globe and
particularly so in Eritrea. The circumstances in which the orphaned
children — the poorest of the poor — live are deplorable. These chil-
dren suffer from the trauma of loss of one or both parents, followed by
308 Suma Narayan Reddy
lack of basic needs, schooling, and adequate care and attention. They
suffer from all kinds of problems — social, psychological, economic
and developmental. Most of these children are taken care of either by
one parent or relatives or older siblings. The struggles of existence in
these poor families are quite pathetic and there is additional vulnera-
bility due to hunger and other hardships. These children are at high
risk for infectious diseases, emotional problems and disability, and
fail as contributory members of society. If not supported early
enough, it is possible that these children may add to the social prob-
lems of the country, namely, street children, delinquents, beggars,
child prostitution, and so on. Therefore, these children need to be
helped with service programmes and activities that would enable
them to grow and lead a normal life.
CONTEXTUAL BACKGROUND: ORPHANS IN ERITREA
Orphanhood is a global problem, involving a wide range of age-
groups, from infants to young teenagers, and for countries gripped
with border conflicts, war situations, and natural disasters, it is a hor-
rendous issue. It has been estimated that the highest number of chil-
dren were orphaned during World War II. In Africa, the problem is on
the increase than in any other continent due to wars, internal conflicts,
famines, and catastrophic diseases such as AIDS. Eritrea, a recently
emerged state after 30 years of devastating war compounded by
drought and which has driven its people to death, poverty and dis-
placement, is no exception to this. A national survey conducted by
Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare (MLHW) of the Government
of Eritrea, in 1993, showed that there were more about 90,000 or-
phans in Eritrea including those who were living in orphanages and
special boarding schools. In other words, about 1 in 30 Eritreans was
an orphan. Of the 90,000 orphans, 61 per cent had lost their fathers, 31
per cent their mothers, and nine per cent both parents- According to
the study, 52 per cent registered orphans were boys and 48 per cent
were girls; 40 per cent were less than six years old and most of the re-
maining were between seven and 14 years old. They were found in all
the six regions of Eritrea, though they were not distributed propor-
tionately. The number of orphans in Eritrea is increasing to formida-
ble proportions due to the border conflict with Ethiopia.
When we talk about the orphans of Eritrea, it must be kept in mind
that most of these children are 'traumatised children', meaning that
separation or loss of parents never occurred in isolation. Most of these
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
children were orphaned during war displacements, where the trauma
of separation was compounded by exposure to violence, persecution,
hunger, loss of their homes and belongings, and other major social up-
heavals. Children in the regions, where war broke out during May
1998, have witnessed bombing and shelling in their own villages.
They saw their parents abused and threatened by the very people they
considered as friends. Further, they have experienced hunger, thirst,
and fear for their lives in the process of deportation (MLHW and
UNICEF, 1999). Some children have seen people they knew being
killed or wounded. All of them were removed more than once on a long
trek to safety and lost the secure structure of their home villages. Many
lost educational opportunities and those living in rural areas were
forced to abandon all their possessions and cross the border under
threat. Some children were victims of torture and violence, and even
sexual harassment, which have left them scarred for a lifetime. As
Freud (cited from Walker, 1993:13) pointed out in her book on Wdr
War acquires comparatively little significance so long as it only
threatens their lives, disturbs their material comforts, or cuts their
food rations. It becomes enormously significant the moment it
breaks up family life and uproots the first attachments of the child
within the family group.
One of the consequences of separation from parents during war is
the rise of child-headed families. Children living in child-headed
households are the poorest of the poor. In these families, older sib-
lings are compelled to grow overnight and face adult responsibilities
and harsh realities of life. They have to care for younger siblings with
hardly enough to survive on. They have no one to turn to and live in
very difficult circumstances. They usually lack the skills that enable
them to earn decent livelihoods, and are forced to engage in a variety
of casual jobs in which they are, very often, exploited. In particular,
girls (as heads of family) are at a greater risk since they may be abused
or sexually exploited. They suffer from lack of recognition, are emo-
tionally, socially and environmentally deprived, and are more prone
to developmental problems (World Vision, 1988).
Orphans and the various aspects relating to them is a
well-researched area, and I would like to touch upon those issues
310 Suma Narayan Reddy
that will have a special significance to war-affected orphans, the
most important among them being the social and psychological im-
pact. Children respond in different ways to the experience/trauma of
separation or being orphaned. While some children adjust fairy well,
others break down emotionally and physically. This behaviour is re-
flected in the form of various stress disorders. One of the common
reactions of children who have witnessed/experienced violence dur-
ing their flight to safety or displacement is post-traumatic stress dis-
order (PTSD). In other words, it is the stress reactions manifested by
a person who has undergone an extremely stressful experience. This
reaction is generally characterised by persistent re-living of trauma
in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, stuttering, rocking or
nail-biting; reduced responsiveness to the environment such as little
interest in play, emotional detachment from parents, avoidance of
intense feelings; and presence of new trauma behaviour. Along with
this, children will show other age-specific problems (Appendix 1).
Not all children react in the same way to stressful situations and an
individual child may not exhibit all the symptoms mentioned. The
symptoms may not be constant and may come and go. Very young
children may not show obvious reaction to a stressful event. This,
however, does not mean that the child is not affected.
Influencing Factors on Children's Responses to Separation/Loss
As mentioned earlier, all children do not respond in the same way to
the experiences of separation or loss. A child's reaction to loss or pro-
longed separation from those on whom he/she relied on for care and
security will depend on early bonding and mothering; experiences be-
fore, during and after the stressful incident; and the characteristics of
the individual child (age and gender).
Early Bonding and Mothering
Starting with Bowlby (1971), one of the principal theorists on
human bonding and attachments, we learn about the importance of
'early bonding' and 'mothering', and the negative repercussions its
absence can create on the young child. This assertion was chal-
lenged by Rutter (1972), who, based on his research studies, con-
cluded that while early separation can have a harmful impact on the
infant, early separation by itself cannot induce lasting problems. The
effects become deleterious when separation becomes part of a chain
of events that includes multiple caretakers, impoverished
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
environment with no stimulation, poor foster caring, and so on. In
real life, it is difficult to disentangle the effect of one variable (for
example, maternal separation) on later behaviour. Other
compounding factors (such as housing, education, continuing fam-
ily strife, neglect, abuse) may contribute to, or even cause, the final
result (Rutter, 1972). Therefore, it is believed that it is not the mere
separation that triggers the problems, but factors that follow it
(Berman, 1987). Studies reviewed by Sulva and Lunt (1982) have
also revealed that a child is flexible and resilient, as a result of which
the impact of early deprivations or lack of bonding can be reversed.
Some of the negative impact of early deprivation/separation are pro-
found depression; withdrawal from life; adversely affected physical,
emotional, social and intellectual development; and greater psycho-
logical disturbances. The problems manifested by the children also
included impaired object relations, aggressive and revolting behav-
iour, and poor school performance. However, they noted that the
children who were able to stay with their parents until the age of
seven were free from these problems.
There is enough evidence to claim that a baby's parents are far
more likely to meet his/her important developmental needs than oth-
ers (Whiley, 1990). According to Schaffer (1987), it does not even
have to be one person; it could be several — older siblings and the
woman next door may well leave their mark too by way of care and
education. A significant number of problematic children were able to
make adequate adjustments when placed in families who could ac-
commodate their special needs.
Experience during Separation
Considerable amount of stress is noticed among children who wit-
nessed violence during separation. Night terrors were noted among
Cambodian children between seven and 13 years of age, who witnessed
the death of their parents due to violence (Boothby, 1989). Other stud-
ies in support of this are Greenbaum, Erlich and Toubiana (1993), who
observed a causal link between dependency behaviour and duration of
detention in children, and McMillan (1991), who established a signifi-
cant relationship between experience of traumatic events and incidence
of stress related behaviour. The more events a child reported, the higher
was the stress-related score.
A few other studies have indicated that what is important is not
just the traumatic experiences, but the accompanying factors. One
312 Suma Narayan Reddy
study that dealt with 'reactions of children under the threat of mis-
siles' , found that proximity to missile hits corresponded to the inten-
sity of the children's stress. But it was also been observed that stress
level can be considerably mediated by adults, especially parental be-
haviour and attitude (Zion and Levy-Shiff, 1993). The findings of
Farood, Zurayk, Chaya, Saadeh, Meshe Fedjian and Sidanu (1993)
lend support to this observation. The results showed that evacuation,
combined with a nervous parent during bombing raids, led to persis-
tence of neuroses in children.
Other Characteristics of the Child
The third influencing factor on the response of children to separation
from parents, especially the mother, is the characteristics of the chil-
dren such as age, gender, coping skills, and so on. The findings are in-
conclusive with regard to age as a sensitive period for stress and
coping skills. With regard to gender, some observations on the differ-
ential impact of traumatic experiences such as war, expulsion and
separation on boys and girls are available. Available evidences are in-
conclusive, as the observations are totally divergent. While a few
studies (Baker, 1991;McCallin, 1991;Trofzer, 1959) found that there
was no difference in the stress experienced by boys and girls, a few
other studies have observed differences (Farood and others, 1993;
Gabarino, 1992). McCallin (1991) observed that girls were more
likely to experience nightmares, aches and pains and to feel sad, while
boys had more fears for their personal safety and about not being
'good'. The findings of Farood and others (1993), based on 600 ado-
lescents in Lebanon (in a study conducted on Jewish-Israeli settlers'
children in the West Bank, during the Gulf War), support this obser-
vation, which reported highest levels of anxiety among girls, while
the boys had fewest concerns about the war and missile attacks. In an-
other study on Vietnamese minors separated from parents, Gabarino
(1992) found that girls suffered more from depression that boys. This
is further supported by the observations of Bowlby (1973), who
opined that girls seemed to respond with more fear than boys did to
separation or loss. Therefore, it may be concluded that though, in gen-
eral, there was no difference in the stress levels experienced by boys
and girls due to separation or traumatic events, it was differently ex-
pressed. And when there was a difference, more stress/problems were
experienced by girls than boys.
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
Age is considered as another important factor. Some researchers
felt that younger children were more susceptible to stress than older
children (Ressler and others, 1988), whereas a few others found that
older children were more vulnerable (Baker, 1991; Greenbaum and
others, 1993), and some observed that both groups were equally prone
to problems under separation (Merloo, 1965, cited from Ressler and
others, 1988). Children of different ages varied significantly in terms
of their developmental needs, abilities and limitations. Therefore, age
at the time of separation might affect the extent of the initial trauma
children will experience as well as the ways in which this trauma will
manifest itself in terms of specific distress reactions (Baker, 1991;
Ressler and others, 1988).
SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES AND OPERATIONALISATION OF
The specific objectives of the survey were to:
• gather information on the socio-demographic background of
disadvantaged orphans (namely, age, gender, religion, region,
education, reason for dropout, reason for non-schooling);
• probe in to the types and nature of orphanhood, causes and avail-
ability of parental care for the orphans;
• study the various problems faced by the orphans and their future
• examine the association between various variables and see
whether certain trends could be delineated,in support of the ex-
isting findings on orphans.
Based on the theoretical review, nine hypothetical statements were
also formulated that were examined in the light of the survey findings
in the later part of the study.
The terms of reference of important words, phrases or concepts are
is a child under 18 years, who has lost one or both parents, or
whose parents' whereabouts are not known.
refers to orphans below 18 years who were
living in absolute poverty conditions and would require support with
topmost priority as notified by the officials of the regions. Economic
status was not taken into account as the requirement varied from re-
gion to region.
314 Suma Narayan Reddy
were children under the age of 18 years whose fa-
thers were dead or whose whereabouts were not known.
were children under the age of 18 years whose
mothers were dead or whose whereabouts were not known.
refer to social, economic and psychological problems as-
certained with the help of four items in each area.
The present article is based on a nation-wide exploratory survey in
Eritrea. The survey was carried out with the help of interview schedules
prepared to understand the living conditions and problems of the 'most
disadvantaged orphans', a subjective criteria drawn by the local offi-
cials. The sampling used was the census survey that relied on identifi-
cation and enumeration of the 'disadvantaged orphans' that could
possibly be traced in the six regions of Eritrea. Though a total of 50,782
orphans were interviewed, there is every possibility that quite a few
'disadvantaged orphans' were missed out and the number of orphans
enumerated may not be the exact figure. But we can certainly assume
that it is closer to the actual. Moreover, given the large number of or-
phans studied, the survey would certainly reflect the situation of or-
phans in Eritrea, and meet the requirements of the stated objectives.
Data was collected from the six regions of Eritrea with the help of
824 field investigators and 84 supervisors duly trained for the pur-
pose. Each interview took about half an hour to complete. Sometimes,
it took longer as the respondents became emotional while sharing
information about their lives and parents. In the case of children 10
years and below, the surviving parent or the caretaker of the child was
interviewed. Most of the interviews were held in the houses where the
children lived and with a reasonable amount of privacy. A few focus
group discussions were also held to strengthen the findings.
The data was processed and analysed with the help of percentages,
two-way tables, mean, and simple statistical techniques. Chi-square
was also was made use of to examine the association between a few
variables where it was required. For this purpose, the variables were
treated as independent variables and dependent variables as under.
• Economic status of parents
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
• Type of orphans
• Age at loss of mother
• Age at loss of father
• Duration of loss of mother
• Duration of loss of father
• Present guardian
• Schooling opportunity
• Reason for school dropout
• Severity of problems
• Type of social problems
• Severity of psychological problems
• General health status
• Likeness of step-parents/step-father/step-mother
• Opinion about caretakers
• Immediacy of care-taking
• Options for change in caretakers
Variables treated as Independent and Dependent Variables
• Economic problems
• Social problems
• Cause of mother's death/father's death
• Presence of psychological problems
• Future aspirations
From the purpose of analysis, most of these variables were merged
to form new categories.
The constraints of the study included transportation to remote ar-
eas; difficulty in getting investigators to travel to these remote places;
failure of some of the investigators in grasping the questions and
therefore, leaving them unfilled. Another major lacuna of the study
was the use of many close-ended questions that gave the children only
a limited option to state their problems.
Demographic Background of Orphans
Of the 50,782 orphans studied, boys and girls were almost equal in
number, with the boys slightly larger in proportion. Among the three
316 Suma Narayan Reddy
age-categories of orphans studied, the largest majority was children
of middle childhood (7-12 years) and adolescents (13-17 years) fol-
lowed by those in early childhood (3-6 years) and very few infants
(0-2 years). Majority of the children were Christians followed by
Muslims. The economic status of the parents or caretakers was ex-
tremely low, with the largest majority (97 per cent) earning less than
US$13 a month, Of the total sample, two-thirds were paternal orphans
and nearly one-third were maternal orphans; and six per cent were
With regard to their educational background, more than one-third
(35.2 per cent) of the school going age-group were non-schoolers, and
3.9 per cent were dropouts. The remaining 60.2 per cent were attend-
ing school. A detailed probing revealed that their academic perfor-
mance were very poor and a proportion of as high as 29 per cent were
academic failures. With respect to their educational level and reasons
for dropout, among the complete orphans of school-going age, only
two-thirds were attending school; of the remaining one-third that
stayed out of school, a very small proportion had dropped out of
school and the rest never having been to school.
Comparatively, more boys were in schools and more girls were
either dropouts or had had no schooling opportunity. Probably, the
pressures of taking care of the family in the absence of one parent
fell more on girls than on boys. This was confirmed with the obser-
vations of the focus group discussions. The largest majority of
school-going children was in the elementary level followed by a few
in junior and senior levels. Majority of the dropouts discontinued
their studies at the elementary level itself, barring a few at higher
The main reasons for dropping out of school were poverty, dis-
placement, and illness. Parent's death, negligence, change of resi-
dence, absence of school, and the need to take care of the home were
also contributing factors. While poverty and personal reasons domi-
nated as the reasons for dropping out in the case of boys, absence of
adult care was the predominant reason for girls to drop out of school.
Similar reasons accounted for the non-schooling of children. Illness,
disability and religious beliefs also figured as causes for
non-schooling among a small proportion of the children. A propor-
tionate and statistically significant association was also found be-
tween the economic status of parents and the schooling opportunity of
children, supporting the existing knowledge in the field.
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
Two-thirds of the respondents had lost their fathers or mothers at an
early age, that is below six years, which is a very critical period for
child development. Illness was the main cause of death, both in the
case of maternal or paternal deaths. Whether the illness was the result
of war casualties was not probed, though it is believed that most of
these illness were precipitated by war situations such as landmines
(UNICEF, 1994). Comparatively, more proportion of fathers lost
their lives due to accidents or the war. The main killer diseases were
malaria, tuberculosis, respiratory infections, abdominal problems,
'strange fever', and heart problems, both in the case of deaths of fa-
thers and mothers. In addition, mothers also died of blood pressure,
post-delivery complications, swelling of the body, and reproductive
Consistent with available evidences, it was observed that in gen-
eral, the complete orphans were more prone to miss out on school life
and face other problems, followed by maternal orphans. This is con-
firmed by the fact that a larger proportion of complete orphans had no
schooling or had to drop out of school, had more proportion of the dis-
abled and chronically ill, and those with social and psychological
problems especially, strained relationships. They had also expressed
hopelessness and helplessness in terms of their future plans as 'God's
will' and 'nothing'. Maternal orphans followed this trend. These
problems were reported in lesser proportion in the case of paternal or-
phans. It may be inferred that the absence of both parents or mothers
had a more deleterious impact on children than the absence of fathers.
It is important to note that as many as 80 per cent of the respondents
were living with one parent or one parent and a step-parent (Tablel).
The rest were living with close relatives or older siblings, barring a
few who were taken care of by volunteers or lived alone and were
complete orphans. This reflects the tradition of the Eritrean extended
families that owns up the responsibility of taking care of orphans.
About 10 per cent of these parents were disabled and another five per
cent were chronically ill who needed additional support. In addition,
most of the parents were extremely poor with no stable source of in-
come. The caretakers were also extremely poor. This meant that
318 Suma Narayan Reddy
though the children had guardians, it did not mean that they got the
necessary support or care, or even their basic needs met.
TABLE 1: Present Guardian
Present Guardian and Type of Orphans
It is also interesting to note that only about two-thirds (68.66 per cent)
of the maternal orphans were living with their fathers of which 18.11
per cent lived with their fathers and step-mothers. The rest (28.34 per
cent) lived with their relatives, barring a few who lived with their sib-
lings (2.52 per cent) or lived alone (0.40 per cent). The reasons for
one-third of the maternal orphans to live away from their fathers is not
known — whether this was due to the inability of the fathers to take
care of small children/girls, or willing neglect of children, or refusal
of the children themselves to stay with the fathers — as this issue was
not probed into.
In the case of paternal orphans, the largest majority (93.42 per
cent) lived with their mothers; it was only a very small proportion
who lived with their relatives (6.09 per cent), or siblings (0.41 per
cent), or lived alone (0.1 per cent). This was owing to the inability of
the mother to take care of them as expressed by the children them-
selves in reply to the query on reason for 'preference to live with'.
largest majority (75 per cent) of the complete orphans lived
with their relatives or volunteers, while the rest mainly lived with
their siblings (23.08 per cent). Though a very small proportion, the
majority of orphans who lived alone were complete orphans, fol-
lowed by maternal orphans.
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
Present Guardian by Age
The important trends that need to be noted were in the case of orphans
cared by siblings and orphans who lived alone. Regarding orphans
cared by siblings (child-headed families), as the age increased the
proportion of children cared by siblings also increased. This may be
because, as the age increased more orphans preferred to stay away
from 'adult supervision' in the absence of parents or because younger
children tended to elicit more sympathy and also attract the care of rel-
atives as compared to older children. But the orphans who lived alone,
as well as those who lived with volunteers or siblings, were more frus-
trated with their present lives as is evident from large proportions of
them opting for a change in caretakers to a parent or relatives. They
also faced more problems with interpersonal relationships and psy-
Available evidence shows that children living in child-headed
households are at particular risk as the elder sibling is compelled to
care for younger siblings and face the harsh realities of life with noth-
ing to survive on. Those who lived with one parent and a step-parent
also faced these problems as the children, more often than not, had
difficulties in accepting a step-parent.
The various problems encountered by orphans in their social, eco-
nomic and psychological aspects are dealt in this section. These areas
were studied with the help of pre-coded questions that would have had
a serious limitation in terms of the response provided by the respon-
dents. Moreover, there were overlapping aspects with regards to the
areas studied. Hence, what is obtained is a very superficial response
with respect to the problems faced by orphans. The health status of or-
phans, details of disability, and chronic diseases are also presented.
Their future aspirations that were also elicited with the help of
pre-coded responses are analysed and discussed.
Table 2 indicates that, of the total orphans, nearly half (48 per cent)
had social problems — isolation, lack of medical treatment, lack of
educational facilities, strained relationships, and a combination of all
of the above. Around 4.1 per cent reported no problems and the no re-
sponse rate was 10.8 per cent. 'Strained relationship' was expressed
320 Suma Narayan Reddy
as a problem only by a very small proportion (2.5 per cent). In general,
problems of isolation, medical care and education were the most prev-
alent ones, though medical problem was the greatest.
Economic problems was ascertained in terms of the following five
pre-coded items — starvation, no proper clothing, financial prob-
lems, lack of school materials, and a combination of all. The largest
majority of orphans (89.3 percent) were reportedly affected with eco-
nomic problems. Among the types of problems expressed, the largest
majority had a combination of all four economic problems. It is very
clear that most of the orphans were subjected to acute poverty situa-
tions (Table 2).
The pre-coded responses included excessive worrying, loneliness,
nervousness, sad remembrances of parental loss, and combination of
all the above four problems. Psychological problems of one kind or
other or a combination of all four were reported among a little more
than one-third of the population (37.3 per cent). It was not reported
among 52.2 per cent and around 10.5 per cent did not respond at all
Among those who had problems, around one-fifth (22.7 per cent)
had a combination of all four problems. Regarding individual prob-
lems, sad memories of parental loss (24.4 per cent), loneliness (24.6
per cent), and excessive worrying (20.5 per cent) were prevalent sin-
gly, in almost the same proportions among one-fifth to one-fourth of
the affected group. Comparatively, nervousness was reported among
a smaller proportion (7.8 per cent). In general, the problems that re-
quired attention were feelings of parental loss, loneliness, and exces-
sive worrying. More information about their problems was obtained
through the focus group discussions and is presented in Appendix 2.
Problems with Respect to Relevant Background Variables
Most of the orphans, both boys and girls, faced economic problems
followed by social and psychological problems. Around 80 per
cent had faced a combination of various problems. Lack of medical
care, lack of educational facilities, and isolation were the main so-
cial problems. Interpersonal problems were reported more among
the adolescents. Sad memories of parental loss/grief reaction,
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
excessive worrying and loneliness and a combination of all were
the main psychological problems expressed. Older orphans, espe-
cially adolescents; orphans whose mothers had died of unnatural
causes; and those who expressed a strong dislike for their steppar-
ents had comparatively more proportion of psychological prob-
lems. Psychological problems were also observed in a higher
proportion in complete orphans, orphans who lived alone, or with
siblings, or step-parents. Complete orphans and those who lived
alone were certainly at a higher risk than others due to the depriva-
tion of adult care and supervision. Children living with siblings
were also at risk, as they were vulnerable in terms of adequate
food, shelter, adult care, and so on. Complete orphans, coupled
with lack of parental care, emerged as a major cause for social and
psychological problems. Some of these children (41 per cent) also
expressed an urge to be cared by an adult.
Health Status of Orphans
Majority of children, that is 95 per cent were healthy and had no major
health problems. Around 2.8 per cent were disabled and 2.2 per cent
were chronically ill. The health status of boys and girls were almost
Illness and Disability
Only less than three per cent of the orphans were chronically ill or dis-
abled. This proportion is consistent with the findings of an earlier sur-
vey (UNICEF, 1994). This can also be due to the fact that these
problems are not easily identifiable among young children and hence
not observed. It was also noted that higher the age, more were the pro-
portions of orphans with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
The common chronic illnesses reported were tuberculosis, malaria,
respiratory infections, stomach and abdominal problems, cancer,
heart problems, ear infections, epilepsy, diabetes, and so on. A larger
proportion of girls had heart problems. Tuberculosis, malaria, respira-
tory infections, stomach and abdominal problems, and anaemia were
reported as the killer diseases among children in Eritrea.
Physical disability, followed by hearing disability and visual dis-
ability were the main disabilities observed. The other problems were
epilepsy, learning disability, leprosy, and multiple disabilities. The
prevalence of learning disability was very less, probably due to the
difficulty in its identification.
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
The future aspirations of orphans were studied with the help of a few
pre-coded responses with a provision for open responses. As Table 3
indicates, the greatest majority (80.5 per cent) had expressed plans
to study. A few had expressed plans to work, to graze animals, or to
work and learn. A small proportion had expressed 'helplessness' in
terms of opting for the responses, namely 'God's will', and 'no
plans'. In general, a large majority of the orphans were intending to
study and get educated/qualified, that was quite appropriate for their
TABLE 3: Future Aspirations
However, the pre-coded responses seem to have had a limiting in-
fluence on the real aspirations of these orphans. More proportion of
children who expressed a helpless attitude included the complete or-
phans and maternal orphans; those who had never been to school or
dropouts; orphans with a disability, and those who were both disabled
and ill; younger children; comparatively more girls; and orphans who
lost their mothers at a very young age. Helplessness regarding the fu-
ture may also be a reflection of their frustrations in life and the emo-
tional trauma that they were undergoing. It may be noted that nearly
32 per cent of the orphans also expressed that they wanted to become
soldiers and fight and kill their enemies. Ninety-two percent of these
children were boys. The desire to take revenge was deep-rooted in the
children affected by war.
324 Suma Narayan Reddy
REVIEW OF THE STUDY HYPOTHESES
The trends noticed in the present survey helped to examine the nine
hypothetical statements formulated below, though some of the associ-
ations were statistically non-significant. However, they are useful to-
wards generating hypotheses towards more focussed or in depth
studies in the future. They can also be used as pointers for planning
various intervention services and policy formulations.
Younger the age at the loss of mother, greater will be the problems for
Data on the type or severity of social and psychological problems
faced, or the health problems faced by orphans did not lend support to
this hypothesis. However, there is a trend that indicates that younger
the age at the loss of mother, lesser are the concrete plans for the fu-
ture, and greater are the feelings of helplessness. This does reflect the
emotional trauma of children. However, this relationship is not statis-
tically significant. But its implication is that we cannot totally rule out
the impact that age at loss of mother has on children's minds and the
fact that it does have a role to play.
Complete orphans will have greater problems than others
The following trends do confirm this observation. Complete orphans
shared comparatively more proportion of the following problems:
• less schooling opportunities,
• more dropouts,
• social problems (especially interpersonal relationship prob-
• psychological problems.
The association between type of orphans and psychological prob-
lems is statistically significant. The observations of UNICEF (1994)
and Reddy (1987) lend support to this.
Severity of problems is directly proportionate to the age of orphans
This hypothesis is partially supported as the psychological problems
did vary according to the age of children, namely younger the child,
lesser the problem; and older the child, greater the problem. Baker's
(1991) findings are in agreement with this observation. But this trend
was not noticed in the case of social problems or severity of problems.
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
Future aspirations of orphans vary according to age and schooling
This association between future aspirations and schooling opportuni-
ties stands supported, and is consistent with the widely held views on
the impact of education on children. Data showed that 'concrete
plans' for the future was associated more with children who were cur-
rently attending school than others. Dropouts and those who had no
schooling expressed more feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
This finding was statistically significant at the .05 level (Chi-square=
3.645). The association between future aspirations and age of orphans
is not supported, as there was no difference in the plans expressed by
orphans of different are groups.
Healthy orphans will have more concrete plans for their future than
those who are chronically ill or are disabled
This association is partially supported by the findings. Analysis indi-
cates that orphans with concrete plans are more associated with those
who are healthy and chronically ill. On the other hand, those with no
concrete plans are more associated with orphans who are disabled and
those who are both disabled and ill. This association is not statistically
Complete orphans will have more feelings of hopelessness and
helplessness towards the future than others
This hypothesis is supported by the analysis that showed that orphans
with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness were in larger propor-
tion among complete orphans than among paternal or maternal or-
phans. However, it was also seen that future aspiration was influenced
by schooling opportunities and complete orphans had more propor-
tion of children without schooling opportunities. Hence, we may con-
clude that girls with no schooling opportunities were more prone to
have an attitude of 'hopelessness and helplessness' towards their fu-
ture than the complete orphans with schooling opportunities. This
finding was significant statistically at the .05 level (Chi-square
326 Suma Narayan Reddy
Adolescent orphans will have more problems of 'strained relations'
and isolation than others
Existing evidence does lend support to this conjunction. With regard to
the type of problems faced, a larger proportion of adolescents faced re-
lationship problems, followed by isolation and lack of educational fa-
cilities. Orphans in the 7-12 years age group also faced this problem,
though in a lower proportion. The younger age groups shared the low-
Higher the economic status of parents, (a) greater are the
opportunities for schooling, and (b) lesser are the problems faced
Part (a) of this hypothesis is supported and part (b) is rejected. The eco-
nomic status of parents was directly proportionate to the schooling op-
portunities of children as the analysis reveals, namely higher the
economic status, higher was the schooling opportunity, and lower the
economic status, lower was the schooling opportunity. The reverse was
true in the case of those who had no schooling and also the dropouts.
Lower the economic status, higher was the dropout and no schooling
rates and vice-versa in the case of higher income groups. This associa-
tion is statistically significant (Lamda was 0.15 and the chi-square
value was significant at the .01 level). A similar trend was noticed in the
case of the economic status of caretakers and orphans too.
Orphaned girls will have more social and psychological problems
than orphaned boys
This hypothesis is disproved as we found that the social and psycho-
logical problems faced by orphans of both genders were almost the
same. There was also no difference with regard to the severity of
problems faced by both girls and boys.
This observation correlates with the research findings of Baker
(1991) and McCallin (1991). However, it finds support in the fact that
girls displayed more abnormal behaviour than boys. This finding is
corroborated by the observations of Gabarino (1992), Greenbaum and
others (1993), and Farood and others (1993).
Other Important Trends Observed
The other trends observed that will be useful in framing hypotheses
for future studies are as follow:
The Agonising Plight of Orphans of War
• Children living with their mothers (paternal orphans) will have
fewer problems (social, psychological) and more hopes about
their future than maternal or complete orphans.
• More maternal orphans are likely to stay away from their fathers
than paternal orphans staying away from their mothers.
• There is a difference in the future aspirations of boys and girls.
• Complete orphans are more vulnerable to health problems and
disabilities than others.
• Orphans who live alone, with volunteers and siblings are likely
to be more dissatisfied with the care and would opt for a change
than those who are living with one of their parents.
• Unnatural death of mothers is associated with more psychologi-
These trends can be of great help in providing direction for future
researches intended to examine these above stated relationships and
come out with reliable information based on specific and in-depth
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
We can summarise a million lives in a short paper, but eventually,
what matters is how we deal with the real human problems.
The very fact 50,782 disadvantaged orphans were cited and studied is
a loud and clear reminder for reaching out to them with the required
care and support that would foster their development and thereby pre-
vent any developmental hazards and its social, economic and psycho-
logical consequences. Disadvantaged orphans encountered problems
at various fronts, namely meeting basic needs such as food and shel-
ter, schooling, health care, social and psychological status, and lack of
adult care in some cases. Therefore, the programmes should address
the psychosocial needs, survival needs, education, and healthy devel-
opment of these orphans. In other words, a holistic approach should
be adopted. As we know, children do not develop in isolation and
their well-being and development depends on the family and commu-
nity in which they grow up. The family and community have a crucial
role in fostering or hampering their development as the literature re-
view clearly indicated. Therefore, a child's needs cannot be addressed
in isolation from the circumstances of his or her family and caregivers
and the larger community. This would necessitate the inevitable need
for a three-tier approach, namely direct service to the child, helping
328 Suma Narayan Reddy
the child through services to the family, and assisting the child and
family through services in the community.
The prevalence of so many orphans calls for a nation-wide policy
and programmes. Such a nation-wide approach ought to be supported
with empirical evidences on the background, living conditions, prob-
lems faced, and other aspects of orphans. A survey carried out in 1992
helped only to ascertain the magnitude of the problem of orphans. The
present study has thrown light on various aspects of orphans that have
implications for policy development, programme planning and imple-
mentation and research. It is hoped that these efforts will bring prog-
ress and development in addressing to the problems of the
disadvantaged orphans and enable them realise their rights as chil-
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332 Suma Narayan Reddy
What Girls had shared in the Focus Group Discussion
• They missed their parents and their 'happy home'. They were uncomfortable in the
new crowded surroundings and were terrified by the sudden reaction of their
community forcing them to leave. They were shocked, frightened and thought that
they would be killed. They got nightmares in which the Ethiopian soldiers were
coming to take them away, or arresting one of their parents.
• They missed their old life with fun and games, missed a variety of foods, and
clothing that they liked. School-going girls missed their organised entertainment
(music, dancing, and community festivals, which they had before displacement).
They were burdened with a greater number of household tasks than they had been
used to doing. In some places, they had to walk long distances to fetch water and
firewood. Those who were separated from siblings missed their bothers or sisters.
Those who had lost their mothers are literally drained off their energy in doing
household chorus, apart from missing their own mothers. Some of them were teased
and were made fun of in their schools for their low scores and repeated failures.
They complained of lack of time and space to study.
• They also complained of frequent headaches, body pains, and fear of the future.
They were listless, despairing and without much hope.
What Boys had Shared in the Focus Group Discussion
• Small boys expressed that they missed their home and good food. They missed their
parents, schools and teachers. Those who had lost their mothers had difficulty in
sleeping at night. The majority suffered from nightmares related to their expulsion
• Junior and older boys were preoccupied with the change in their life status. They
worried about working and earning for the family. They were very angry with the
'Ethiopians' whom they believed to be the source of all their troubles. They were
more upset by the loss of their mothers and wanted to fight back when they grew up.
• They suffered from nightmares and flashbacks.
• The boys who had no schooling expressed that they wanted to become soldiers and
kill the enemies.