By Rob McBride
SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan, 15 March 2012 – In the city of Samarkand, two boys and their father sat at a table in their garden, sipping tea. On the other side of their father was his new wife.
But their family is not yet complete.
“My plan is to get my daughters back as well,” said Avaz Rakhimov. “This is their home and I don’t want them to be raised anywhere else.”
A family split apart
Mr. Rakhimov’s family was ripped apart when he separated from his former wife. His ex-wife received custody of the children, and when she travelled abroad for work, her mother took over their care.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on a UNICEF-supported child protection program helping to reunite families in Uzbekistan. Watch in RealPlayer|
But the social services system intervened, placing the children in an institution.
The ready institutionalization of children is a practice inherited from the Soviet era, though it is now known to be detrimental to children’s development. Institutionalization deprives children of the individual attention, stimulus and emotional security a family environment provides.
After setting up a home with his new wife, Mr. Rakhimov was able to successfully apply to have his sons Nodirbek, 7, and Nazirbek, 6, returned to him.
Still, his two older daughters remain in alternative care.
“Obviously, I’m very happy the boys have been returned to me,” he said. But he is committed to getting his daughters returned as well.
He is remodeling parts of his home to make it more family-friendly, and is constructing a bedroom for the girls.
“I’m doing everything I can for them, like the house renovation. Everything is for them.”
Helping children at risk
The family’s case is a success story for Family and Child Support Services, a programme that has received UNICEF-sponsored training in child-friendly methods to support children at risk. The programme helps families like the Rakhimovs navigate the different government agencies and departments while resolving family issues.
|© UNICEF Uzbekistan/2011|
|Nazirbek, 6, and Nodirbek, 7, sit with their father, Avaz Rakhimov, stepmother and grandmother, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. After his divorce, Mr. Rakhimov worked with the district’s Family and Child Support Services to regain custody of his children.|
“Individuals often have to deal with different agencies, and it can be quite a challenge,” explained social worker Galina Kukanyants. “But we can help simplify this by collaborating between different ministries. And we work in close cooperation with the local community and children’s homes.”
Ms. Kukanyants is working with Mr. Rakhimov, and at a recent meeting, she was pleased with the progress she found.
“First, we will try to arrange some sponsored support,” she said, “and then hopefully we can return the girls here before the end of the year. That is the aim.”
Transforming child protection
It is part of a fundamental change, supported by UNICEF, that is transforming the whole area of child protection in Uzbekistan – with the goal of keeping children out of state care.
|© UNICEF video|
|Nodirbek Rakhimov,7, and Nazirbek Rakhimov, 6, sit at their family home in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.|
“Over the past few years we’ve been doing a lot of awareness-raising, a lot of attitude changing, and a lot of re-training of frontline professionals,” explained Christine Gale, a child protection expert at UNICEF. “There’s a real growing understanding that it’s actually not a good thing to institutionalize children, and that we need to provide multi-sectoral services at a family level.”
Uzbekistan appears to be moving into a new phase in protecting the rights of its younger citizens. This will hopefully become more formalized with the adoption of a national child protection system.
Said Ms. Gale, “We really want to see communities, families and front line professionals all [involved in] the legislation, the policy and systems that really prevent children being at risk.”
With UNICEF’s active partnership, a national social work system and child protection legislation are certainly within reach.