Child development in Chernobyl-affected Ukraine
The health of children living in the Chernobyl-affected regions of Ukraine is currently determined not by the level of radiation around them, but rather by their living conditions, and the knowledge and practices of their parents. In 2009, the European Union (EU) and UNICEF started a new project to improve access and quality of mother and child health-care services in the four oblasts in the Central and Northern Ukraine affected by the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl - Zhytomyr, Sumy, Rivne and Chernigiv.
This is Rivne oblast. Down the country road we see a seven-year-old girl, who leads her younger brother by the hand. Little Roma is five years of age. His left hand is broken. “What happened?,” I ask his sister. “He fell down from the haystack in the yard where we played,” is the answer.
There is a bus stop about 200 metres away from the place where we spotted our little friends. This is the place where
local children have arranged a makeshift playground – they run around, jump and play football on this dusty strip of roadside land. While adults and older children сarry out household chores, middle children pick up the youngest ones and play here without parental supervision.
The children organize an excursion around the village for us. On one of the roads, local kids are engaged in their favourite “business” – they race ducklings around dirty puddles. Around the corner two dark-haired girls play behind the fence on the top of the sand hill among abandoned farming equipment. And finally, children lead us to the copse, where local kids wait in the line to swing on the village's only seesaw, carelessly attached to the treetops.
“Our Nation will Stand Forever
The village of Tseptsevychi is well-known throughout Ukraine for its birth rates. There are 412 children under the age of six, not to mention the older kids. At the same time, the village has neither a kindergarten nor playground for children to spend their leisure time safely and under the supervision of the adults.
“They closed our kindergarten 15 years ago,” says Lida, a 48-year old mother of 15 children – 10 boys and five girls. “The children who attended kindergarten were more developed,” she continues, stroking the head of her youngest daughter, 18-month old Sveta. Little Sveta and her mom regularly visit the local clinic to receive a course of therapeutic massage on her feet and to receive specialized counselling.
The problem is that paediatrician visits the “FAP” – the village first aid station - only once a week. In order to monitor the physical development of young children, he uses such “sophisticated equipment” as a measuring tape and scales with weights. However, in case of more serious injury or illness, parents have to bring their kids to a centre that is 20 kilometres away, and the road is barely paved.
How knowledge can support healthy child development
Considering the absence of adequate education and counselling programmes, the only source of information for young parents is the experience of their mothers, grandmothers or their own beliefs. Twenty-six-year-old Halya, the mother of four children, told us that when she lacked breast milk to feed her oldest daughter, she fed chicken broth and stewed fruit to her baby when she was only three months of age. “When I was eating, Natasha reached out to my spoon and tried my meals. Well, she liked it, so I started giving her soup.”
While she obviously cares for her children, Halya – along with many other families in the region – could benefit from learning basic information on nutrition, healthy family lifestyles and child development. For instance, the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding until a baby is six months old. Also, simple things such as telling children story tales or drawing with them may help foster development. However, like the children playing alone along the roadside, her kids spend their leisure time playing on their own in the backyard, with the oldest child, who is only seven, supervising the younger ones.
While answering the question “What do you do to foster the development of your kids? Do you read fairy tales, do you draw, do you help them to develop their fingers?” the young woman said, “Actually the kids play in the backyard on their own. The older children play with younger ones. (The oldest child – Natalka – is 7 years of age).
“Such parental practices and care often lead to health-related problems in the future,” explains Olena Sherstyuk, Programme Officer of the UNICEF Ukraine’s Child Health and Development Programme. The joint UNICEF-EU project aims to support and educate parents on these issues.
“Unfortunately, the loss of potential in childhood in many cases is irreversible,” says Sherstyuk. “The first years of life, especially the first year after birth, is the most important for children. It is the period when the child’s development is the most intensive, including their mental abilities and formation of personality. This period lays the foundation for future health and social well-being. Children tend to develop better if they receive appropriate love, care, encouragement, attachment and recognition of their successes, as well as adequate stimulation of cognitive development, coupled with adequate nutrition and medical care,” she says.
“Poor nutrition of children leads to metabolism disorders and delayed physical and mental development; it is also the cause of frequent infectious diseases. The majority of parents are able to provide their kids with adequate nutrition, if they are aware of children’s nutritional needs and approach child care issues responsibly. This is why our project aims to improve parental knowledge and practices, and to establish a supportive environment for families and communities to ensure children’s healthy and complete development.”
As a result of this two-year project, UNICEF Ukraine will expand Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiatives, introduce parenting education programmes, and promote prevention of iodine deficiency in these areas. Also, an information campaign will be conducted to raise awareness on health, nutrition, and good parenting among families and young people living on the territories affected by Chernobyl. In addition, UNICEF will procure basic life-saving equipment for maternity hospitals such as warming lamps, tables for newborns, equipment to meet hygiene requirements and gynaecological equipment and diagnostic supplies for Youth-Friendly Clinics.
This UNICEF-EU initiative is being implemented in close cooperation with the national government, social services, local authorities and municipalities, media and other partners.