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Real lives

Armenia's child institutions

© UNICEF/Armenia/Weiss
A 15 year-old girl after a visit from her mother In Vanadsor Boarding School

19 March 2001 -- Armenia's institutions for children are filled to overflowing, and not equipped to meet the growing numbers of abandoned and impoverished children. The deaths of thirteen institutionalized mentally disabled children probably from malnutrition, in winter 2000, was a brutal reminder that Armenia's institutions for its most vulnerable population are in serious crisis. It was by no means an isolated incident. But the hard reality of life as a vulnerable child is beginning to effect more and more children as Armenia's chronic poverty bites ever deeper, and increasing numbers of otherwise healthy children are being committed to state institutions by families who cannot afford to feed them. Poverty is dividing families.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this landlocked southern Caucasian country which borders Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, has begun to fray. An earthquake in 1988 killed 25,000 people and destroyed industry, and a protracted war with neighbouring Azerbaijan during and since independence drained the economy and killed an estimated 20,000 Armenians. The collapse of the Russian economy in 1997 shattered fragile Armenia's resources. Citizens are emigrating en masse; corruption is pandemic; unemployment is driving families apart as husbands seek work abroad; women are turning to prostitution to support their children; the health and education systems are starved of funds and supplies, and often on the point of collapse; and the population of institutionalized children has grown tenfold in as many years, with no sign of slowing down. Yet of the estimated 10,000 child inmates, approximately four of every five are there because their families can no longer afford to feed, clothe, school, or care for them.

The Republic Special Boarding School in the capital Yerevan, is one of the best-run children's institutions, chiefly because it is supported by UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontiers. Rima Haroutunyan, a social worker employed at the school, says that increasing numbers of children are there purely because of poverty. Most are from divorced families where the parents are unemployed.

Separated by poverty

According to every social worker interviewed for this article, the vast majority of institutionalized children come from families who would gladly care for them if they could afford to. It is a new phenomenon in Armenia, directly attributable to the sudden worsening of the economy over the past two years. In the corridors of the school a mother tearfully embraces her four children whose ages range from three to eight, and whom she hasn't seen for a week. An old woman breathlessly explains that she has travelled one hundred kilometres with a fare provided by a charity in order to visit her grandchildren. Two of thousands of such families throughout Armenia who are separated by the scourge of simple poverty. This most fortunate of Armenian children's institutions is, despite its relative good fortune, a bleak house.

Many children have fathers who went abroad for work. Thirty of the Republic Special Boarding School's 100 children have mothers who have "gone abroad to work," most often a euphemism for leaving Armenia to work as contract prostitutes in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East (according to a recent report, Armenia has become a "point of origin" for sex workers). A number of the children have suffered abuse, such as being forced into prostitution by family members, or sold. One social worker who asked not to be identified said that she has heard of other children being taken abroad as part of the trafficking of women feeding the burgeoning sex industry, and the Armenian Ministry of the Interior has established an investigation into the trade.

"We didn't know child labour before," says UNICEF Officer Naira Avetisyan. "But it has emerged. Visit any market, and children are working instead of attending classes."

Aid workers tell stories of parents literally lining-up outside directors' offices to gain admission for their children into one of Armenia's 51 state institutions for children. In the Vanadzor orphanage for socially vulnerable children, teacher Marina Davtyan says that this year the number of abandoned newborn children has steeply increased, and that their 100 children are all from families who cannot provide food for their children.

But in a country in which health and education services are, in the words of UNICEF's Naira Avetisyan, "on the point of complete collapse," institutions for children perceived as socially undesirable are low on the list of priority for state assistance. They are almost all dilapidated, often badly-run, and inadequately staffed by poorly-paid personnel.

A daily struggle

In most institutions there is a daily struggle to find food and clothing for the children, many of whom have no shoes. None of the staff, according to a 2000 report by UNICEF Child Protection Officer Josi Salem-Pickartz on Armenian children's institutions, have had any form of specialist training for the last twenty years. In a number of institutions, gifted children from poor families learn alongside the mentally disabled, studying curricula designed for the latter. Buildings are in a state of dangerous disrepair. There is little or no heating.

The running of these institutions is, according to one investigative journalist who has spent the past two years researching them, "institutionalized cruelty." Edik Baghdasarian, who has made a number of television documentaries on the abuse of Armenian children and the disabled in government care, says that initially he targeted the staff who ran the institutions, until he realized that they were largely unqualified for their jobs, and living in conditions of extreme poverty themselves. "How can you blame people for neglect, when they are worried about feeding and educating their own children?"

Furthermore, there is a threadbare level of co-ordination between responsible ministries and the institutions themselves. Various government ministries order the severing of electricity, water, gas and telephone lines as bills are not met, unpaid because other ministries have failed to provide funds. In theory, the government provides money for food and salaries and basic upkeep: In practice, directors often borrow money or beg for food on credit, and unpaid and impoverished staff have been known to steal it. One director was recently taken to the court for unpaid bills (a six month bread bill for the orphanage in question).

UNICEF's is advocating with the Armenian government to improve the sometimes appalling conditions of children's institutions, and to ensure that Armenia abides by its international treaty obligations for the protection of children.

"We have excellent laws, based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child," says UNICEF's Naira Avetisyan. "But no proper regulations to ensure enforcement." She emphasizes that many of the orphanages and schools are full of good intentions. "But good intentions will not buy food, heat a room, or educate a child. That's the responsibility of good government."



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