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UNICEF supports social workers in changing young lives for the better

By Caroline Hodges

Tashkent, October 21, 2009 - Vasilii (12) has had a challenging childhood. He lived alone with his grandmother and his father has special needs.  His father was granted early release from prison on health grounds and the child was left looking after them both.

“When he came in to our office we understood immediately the child needed our help” explains Elena Vorobeva, head of the social reintegration department of the family and child support Unit of Chilanzarskii region’s mayoral office, “We supported him emotionally and ensured his school provided free meals and stationary and that the local Mahalla committee understood the situation and gave a helping hand.”

Social work, like that provided by Elena, was recognised as a profession in Uzbekistan in 2008 off the back of three years of UNICEF advocacy. This was a crucial step towards the realization of the childcare system reform process. UNICEF advocacy also led to the allocation of a separate budget line for social workers within the Ministry of Public education.

This has enabled those working in the sphere to have a clearer understanding of the work they do, and standards to be set. Many other social workers have now also received new diplomas in the profession. These were crucial, first steps in totally reforming social work in the country.

Overhauling the framework, and attitudes

“By thinking strategically UNICEF has set about changing the whole social work system, starting with the institutions and ending with the psychology of those who work in the field,” says Dr. Terry Murphy, Professor in Social Work at Tyneside University, the leading UK institution in the sphere. “These are the beginnings of the most sophisticated set up in Central Asia and an example for other countries to follow.”

In just five years, theory on social work in Uzbekistan’s schools has reached and in places surpassed international standards. Students now benefit from links with European institutes and can gain work experience. Those already working in the sphere are being taught new skills.

Changing the sphere is also about a profound change in attitudes. This means getting social workers, especially middle managers, to rethink how they see their work and how their jobs can be used in a different way. Acceptance at the community level has been ensured by integrating work into existing structures such as the Mahallas (neighbourhood communities). 

Keeping families together

The aim of all this is to turn social work into a contemporary profession that can take a whole range of problems in the family and the community solve them. Deinstitutionalisation is about getting orphaned or disabled children out of large institutions and, where possible, into a family environment. This is a key element in the process. 

“The benefits of deinstitutionalisation are twofold,” explains Dr. Murphy, who has been following the reforms in Uzbekistan from day one, “caring for the vulnerable via community action is both significantly cheaper and gives better end results than placing them in institutions.”

Elena’s new approach to social work kept Vasilii from a children’s home. It also halted his difficult family circumstances from getting out of hand. The little differences in her actions were enough to change the little boy’s future. When timely and effective intervention is done nationwide, the consequences are immense.

Children who grow up with relatives and who are sheltered from harm or abuse through constructive work with the family are less likely to fall into self-harm, prostitution, crime or addiction. Reforms thus tie in with a number of key issues such as child protection, preventing or effectively treating juvenile delinquency and ensuring the best care for children with disabilities. They’re a big step towards bringing practices in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and towards improving the lives of children - and their families - across Uzbekistan.



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