Marina, 15, conducts an interactive education activity for her peers in the residential institution in Napadova.
The State of the World's Children 2006 will be launched on 14 December. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the report, we will feature a series of stories focusing on children who are excluded and invisible as a result of armed conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS, discrimination and inequalities. Their stories are the stories of millions of other children whose rights go unfulfilled every day.
NAPADOVA, Moldova - Until a year ago Marina, age 15, thought she would always feel alone. “I thought that if I fell, nobody would stretch out a hand. If I should disappear, nobody would miss me….”
Marina grew up with her father, stepmother and three sisters until she was nine years old, when her parents divorced. “My grandmother took care of me but, when I turned 13, she died and I was left all alone,” Marina says.
Following her grandmother’s death and her father’s refusal to take her in, Marina ended up in an institution in Napadova, Moldova. She is not the only child in the orphanage whose parents are alive. More then 70 per cent of the more than 14,000 children living in residential care in Moldova have parents and are so-called ‘social orphans’. They are placed in institutions for different reasons, but mainly because, in the absence of social safety nets and specialized services for families, they are one of the very few viable options providing child protection in Moldova.
Children placed in residential institutions all over Moldova grow up isolated, lacking the most basic social skills. As a result, once they leave the orphanage they feel utterly lost. They are not prepared for an independent life, and it is extremely difficult for them to find a job or to continue their education. They cannot make friends in the community; they do not know how to manage their finances or where to look for help and advice. Most of them don’t have anybody to rely on or any services to support them, and often become easy prey for traffickers.
Even though she is 15, Marina realizes that after she finishes school she has only two options. One is to go to a vocational school, as most of her fellow students have done, get a job as a seamstress or a hairdresser at a miserable wage, and live in a rented room for years. The second option is to try her luck with a job abroad.
But Marina has decided not to follow either of these paths. Instead, she has become a peer educator within the UNICEF supported Life Skills Education for the Prevention of Trafficking and Unemployment Project. From the trainers - young volunteers of the Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre - she’s learned the most important lesson: never to give up and to fight for her dreams. For the first time, she has been treated with trust and offered an opportunity to improve herself. Participation in the project opened a window to the knowledge and skills she was never offered a chance to learn.
The goal of the Life Skills project is to raise awareness and to build the capacity of vulnerable ‘social orphans’ to understand and exercise their rights. Activities in 11 institutions during 2003 and 2004 involved more then 3,000 children aged 10 to 16. The project is being implemented through the NGO Centre for Information and Documentation on Child Rights with the support of the Ministry of Education and State Department for Youth.
“Activities are interactive and designed to include children and to create some practical skills,” says Viorica Cretu, the project coordinator. “During the first stage we train peer educators. They are taught skills related to communication, interpersonal relations, conflict resolution, employment, time and money management, decision-making, self-respect and healthy lifestyles.”
“Since I’ve been involved in the project I have become more self-confident. Now I am convinced I’ll make it in life,” Marina says optimistically. “I have to help myself. That’s why I want to receive a college education and be able to support myself.”
For Marina, who often finds herself without the most basic items of clothing and toiletries, attending seminars and classes poses significant challenges. When she has to go to a seminar, she borrows shoes and clothes from her fellow pupils. When she needs items of personal hygiene, Marina says her ‘wealthier’ fellow pupils help her out.
During the first training course she attended, Marina discovered her love for journalism. “I liked this profession before, too, because you have the opportunity to travel a lot, meet interesting people. But I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to write,” she says.
“During the last training,” says Marina, “I participated in a journalism workshop. It was difficult at first, but I learned by doing. I wrote two stories with the help of the trainers, one about the volunteers who participated in the seminar, and another about the cleaning lady who was working in the camp where we stayed.”
Marina wants to become a good journalist, and to this end she is learning about writing techniques and new words. She never misses an opportunity to ask people questions. “If I am lucky enough to become a journalist, I will write about unhappy people, and that will be my way of helping them,” she says.
At first teachers from the orphanage were very sceptical about peer educators, but now they are asking them to extend the classes for higher grades.
“After a year of work, my friends can’t wait for life-skills education classes. They listen to us carefully and bombard us with questions. The teachers have also taken us seriously and are now encouraging us,” Marina says enthusiastically.
Teachers have not been the only ones receptive to peer educators. “Since we began conducting these activities we have noticed a positive change in the children at the boarding school,” says Marina. “They are now more united and are friendlier than before”.
Most importantly, Marina now feels that her life has meaning. She is confident that after graduation from the boarding school she will be able to continue her education and will have a family of her own. Her children, she says, will grow up with their parents.