Power in partnerships: Improving the lives of institutionalized children
While the twenty-first century has brought major advances in technology and communication, there remain children and adolescents without homes, family, resources or support. As a result of poverty, war and natural disasters, some find themselves growing up in residential institutions, where they are more vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect. Others are missing the encouragement and resources to develop their full potential.
It is hard not to feel dismayed when we see adults behave mercilessly, when we witness lost opportunity or when we think about how troubled adolescents may increasingly turn to alcohol or drugs in times of stress. It is, however, in our power to bring about positive change and not allow such circumstances to threaten the welfare of young people. Children have the right to protection, care and family support. While an institution cannot replace loving parents, what is most important is for a child to grow up in a warm and safe environment.
Eighty per cent of children in orphanages in Georgia have at least one parent. Some of these children have been abandoned or are disabled and marginalized. In other cases, poverty and unemployment have pushed their parents to place them in an institution.
I will never forget the day I first went to a children’s institution. I met a mother and daughter who had been separated because of extreme poverty. The 7-year-old girl would furtively keep her lunch to share with her mother at the institution’s gate. Most children cherish the word ‘mother’, and the best day of a week is when their mothers come to visit. No words can describe the tragedy of parents who have to select one child out of three and put the other two in the care of an institution because they cannot afford to feed or care for them.
The problems of children in institutions had a profound effect on me. In 2004, I established the international charity foundation Iavnana with the purpose of helping reunite children with their families. I am thankful for the support of my friends in this challenging task: Montserrat Caballé, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ramon Vargas, Marco Berti, Dolora Zajik, Luciana D'Intino, Olga Romanko, Yuri Temirkanov, Miguel Gomez-Martinez, Piero Giuliacci, Marcelo ēlvarez, Michle Crider, Ambrogio Maestri, Giuseppe Giacomini, Alexander Toradze, Alexander Korsantia, and Katie Melua, among others. In collaboration with Iavnana, these world-famous performers participated in charity concerts to help raise financial support for these children.
Thanks to efforts in deinstitutionalization and child welfare reforms by the Government of Georgia in partnership with UNICEF, non-governmental organizations and others, there has been considerable progress. The number of children living in institutions in Georgia has been reduced by 52 per cent since 1999. There is still, however, much to be done. We must recognize that institutionalized children remain a highly vulnerable group. Our primary responsibility is to defend and advocate for their rights, protection and emotional well-being.
Adolescents also face challenges in reaching their full potential and achieving self-identification. As they mature, children develop interests and aspirations; one may have a talent for singing, another may be distinguished at math or science. Often because of poverty, they have no opportunity to cultivate their talents. Supporting children as they grow and develop life skills not only helps them adopt healthy lifestyles but also protects them from forming harmful habits.
I admire the efforts of my greatest friend and teacher of life, Luciano Pavarotti, in supporting youth in Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe who sought careers in opera performance. His grand personality and extensive charity make him unique. The combination of desire and compassion to help those most vulnerable unites us all over the world; Pavarotti’s collaborative humanitarian work can inspire us as we strive to unite for adolescents’ rights and to create a better future for them in Georgia and around the globe.
A prominent opera singer, Paata Burchuladze was appointed UNICEF Ambassador in Georgia in December 2010. He is the founder of the Iavnana foundation, which helps to raise money for vulnerable and homeless children and reunite them with their families. He supports advocacy and fund-raising initiatives to promote the welfare of children.