By Gelina Fontaine, ChildFund Caribbean Program Manager
In Dominica, everyone is affected by child sexual abuse in some way. With a population of just 73,000 people, the Caribbean island saw more than 700 reports of abuse between 2009 and June 2014. That’s one in every 104 people.
If there isn’t a case of abuse within his or her immediate family, a Dominican resident — child or adult — likely has a friend, a cousin or a neighbor who has experienced it. That’s why the island’s national government, along with entities like ChildFund, is taking action to stem the tide of abuse, which most often takes the form of incest or sexual exploitation of boys.
In June, ChildFund and other nonprofit organizations created the 13-member Dominica NGO Coalition for the Protection of Children and Youth. Members include the National Council of Women, the Caribbean Male Action Network, the National Youth Council, the Dominica Association of Disabled Persons and others.
ChildFund currently serves as its secretariat and has funded the establishment of the coalition and its advocacy efforts. The coalition’s vision is for a Dominica where children and youth are free from all forms of violence, which reflects ChildFund Alliance’s global campaign to include this goal on the United Nations’ Post-2015 Agenda.
Every two weeks, the NGO Coalition meets to discuss incidents of child sexual abuse and updates on earlier cases, calling on the police, Dominica’s Ministry of Social Services and the Social Welfare Division, medical personnel and concerned families to make sure that survivors are able to receive the support they need, particularly when they pursue justice.
Meanwhile, ChildFund has worked with communities to address another side of this serious problem, with the Shine a Light project, which focuses on ways to prevent gender-based violence. In addition to other programs, we are working with boys and young men so they’ll make healthy choices while showing respect toward their female peers.
ChildFund Caribbean also has worked to make communities aware of the huge presence of abuse through radio, TV, print and online media — as well as on a grassroots level, promoting weekly conversations among children, youth, parents and other community members. These meetings give participants a chance to discuss the effects of abuse and possible solutions.
In coming weeks and months, coalition members will advocate for critical reforms needed in the legal system, child care institutions, mandatory reporting requirements and other protective measures.
In 2012, ChildFund launched a program called Shine a Light in four countries, thanks in large part to a major gift from a concerned donor. The project’s goal is to raise awareness of gender-based violence, assist child survivors of sexual abuse and help communities develop child-protective systems and responses. In four blog posts, we have learned about the progress made in the countries; today, we focus on Senegal. To read the rest of the series, click here. If you want to help women and girls gain greater independence and empowerment, we have some ideas.
By Danielle Roth, Technical Coordinator for Youth Programs
Senegalese children experience gender-based violence at home and school and in their communities, which amount to an overall environment of pervasive fear and persecution, particularly for girls. A recent study found that in Senegal, 74 percent of schoolgirls have been sexually harassed, 22 percent have experienced an attempted rape, and 8 percent have been raped. Other studies have shown that the people likely to perpetrate this violence are often known to the victim — a classmate, a boyfriend, a neighbor or a teacher.
Gender-based violence, or GBV, is a problem of substantial proportions. It is also an issue with deep roots embedded in socio-cultural norms and community dynamics such as expectations around masculinity and femininity, power dynamics within the household and rigid gender roles. ChildFund is working with Senegalese communities to help them respond to and prevent GBV.
So, what exactly are we doing?
ChildFund works in the Tattaguine and Kolouckmbada areas of the Mbour district to address GBV against children and youth 6 years and older, through a community-led and action-oriented approach known as the community action cycle. This method of community mobilization includes four steps: 1) forming groups, (2) self-diagnosing challenges in the community, (3) developing action plans and (4) carrying out action plans.
From January through June 2014, six child protection groups, composed of community members themselves who are vulnerable to GBV and including both young people and adults, met to discuss some of the most pervasive GBV issues in their communities. These groups then developed their action plans, which outlined key steps they wanted to take in partnership with their communities to address these issues.
The groups chose to focus on community mobilization and advocacy with authorities around rape, early and forced marriage and early pregnancy. An example of the successful work of one group involves a case of forced marriage. A young woman, aged 14 — we will call her Mawa — was forced to leave school when her mother received a pre-dowry gift.
Mawa says, “One day, around 8 p.m., while I was learning my lessons in my mother’s room, she called me to introduce me to two young men. She told me with a very low voice that I should be very kind with one of the men because he had come to ask me for marriage. When I told her that I did not want to get married — I am a student and I want to stay at school — she told me that if I did not love the guy and if I refuse this marriage, she will no longer support me.”
Mawa was left with no choice. To prepare her for marriage, Mawa’s mother withdrew her from school and sent her to the capital, Dakar, to work as a housemaid.
When the youth group in her village learned of Mawa’s situation, they brought the case to the newly formed child protection group. The group then met with Mawa’s mother to negotiate for her return under circumstances that the mother would find amenable but that also recognized Mawa’s human rights.
Mawa had no idea that all this was going on. “One Sunday, my mother called and asked me to come back to my town to resume my studies,” she says. “It is then that I learned that it was thanks to my village child protection committee that I was able to return home.
Cases like Mawa’s are not uncommon in Senegal, and that is why child protection groups like the one in her community are so important. To deepen this vital work, ChildFund will continue to support the child protection groups through another community action cycle.
By Sagita Adeswyi, ChildFund Indonesia
Yufen, a fifth-grader, lives in the Belu district of East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. He loves to play soccer, and he also likes school.
“I have two younger sisters, but they live with my parents in another village,” he says. “On weekends, Grandma takes me to visit my parents. I love my grandma. When she takes me to the farm, she likes telling me lots of different kinds of stories. At home, I help her, collecting water for cooking from our neighbor’s well. I have lived with my grandma since I was little, because my parents said the school here is better.”
Yufen attends Nanakelot Elementary School, which is supported by ChildFund and its local partner, LPAA Belu, through the Child-Friendly School program. ChildFund has provided schools with classroom renovations, school books, teaching aids, tables, chairs, bookcases and guitars. The program, which benefits 338 children and 17 teachers, helps schools become safe, healthy and protected environments for children, encouraging child participation in all aspects of school life.
“I like to go to school because I have many friends there,” Yufen says. “What I like most is science, learning about nature and living creatures. The teachers really care about us. If we are too noisy, they will remind us to be quiet and get back to studying.”
Maria Tai, the school’s principal, agrees that the changes have been beneficial for everyone. Teachers have learned better ways to convey information to their students by preparing lesson plans, managing their classrooms and disciplining children in more effective manners. In turn, students are more comfortable asking questions and giving their opinions in class.
“Before the training on child-friendly schools, we easily became angry with children when they made mistakes. Slowly, we changed our interactions with the children. We listen to children’s needs. On the second break between classes, children were usually asked to just stay in the class. However, some children mentioned that it was really boring and asked if they could take a break in the library. I thought it was a good idea, so I let them.” As a result, students read more than just their textbooks and discuss what they have learned back in class.
Children also are allowed to water plants in the school garden, a task formerly done by staff members. “We never thought that it could be of interest to them and that they could participate,” Tai says. “Now, children water the plants every day, using the water jugs they bring from home.”
Yufen notes that there are other new projects that have brought fresh life to school. “We also made our own attendance boards,” he says. “We made them from recycled materials like used plywood, paper and plastic. We made it together in class. When we come in to the classroom, we mark our arrival time ourselves on the attendance board.
“In every class we also have an honesty box. It is made from a used carton. It teaches us to practice honesty. If we find a pen, we put it in the box. If tomorrow morning, someone is looking for a pen, he or she will be asked to look for it in the box. Once, I lost my book. The next day I checked in the box and I found it had been put there by my friend.”
Yufen also likes to play soccer with his friends after school, but his village doesn’t have a soccer field, so they play in the garden. He hopes his school will get a field one day.
By Veronica Travez, ChildFund Ecuador
Daniela is 15 years old, and she and her two brothers are albino. Albinism is a rare genetic condition characterized by the absence or reduction of melanin in the skin, eyes and/or hair.
Daniela’s family lives in the northwestern area of the province of Pichincha in Ecuador, a region that’s subtropical and humid. Her home is made of wood, which helps protect the family from high temperatures, humidity and insects.
Vicente, her father, is a farmer, and Jessica, her mother, is a seamstress. With the help of Daniela’s sponsor, Susan, the family was able to obtain a loan to buy sewing machines and have installed a textile workshop in their home. This business allows them to share quality time with their children while supporting them financially.
Albinism causes difficulties for Daniela and her brothers. Because melanin is necessary for the development of the eyes, the siblings have experienced problems with their vision. However, Daniela’s sponsor has sent money that covers vision treatment, so the siblings’ sight has improved.
“Thanks to the support of my sponsor, I have excelled economically, in my health and in my studies,” Daniela says, “and I was able to be trained as a young leader.”
Daniela also participates in a ChildFund-supported community program for school-aged girls and boys, where they receive social and financial education, as well as learning about their rights, responsibilities, self-esteem, saving money and frugal spending.
Jessica is a trainer in the program, and she notes that she too has learned a lot throughout the process. “I have met new friends; I learned to respect and care for my peers with disabilities. At school we performed a skit about people with disabilities, teaching children not to discriminate against them.“
By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
When colleagues visit me in Northern California from overseas, we often have lunch at Arizmendi Bakery. Sitting at a small, round table, my friends eat the bakery’s signature sourdough pizza topped with the day’s combination — perhaps fresh corn, poblano chiles, sundried tomatoes, homemade mozzarella cheese, lime juice, olive oil and cilantro parmesan. It’s sweet, spicy, salty, tart, creamy, chewy and crisp.
Arizmendi is more than just a good place for lunch; it is actually a collective of six cooperative bakeries in the San Francisco Bay area. The workers are part owners, and this is a good place to bring my international colleagues, who are interested in how cooperatives play an important role in developing countries.
Today is the International Day of Cooperatives, and this year’s theme is achieving sustainable development through cooperative enterprises.
Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, understood their value. From the start, he encouraged groups of 10 people to register as cooperatives, moving them from unemployment to employment, often in agriculture. Today, the Ministry of Agriculture still oversees Zambia’s cooperatives. Lusaka’s Cooperative College is one of the nation’s 11 agricultural training institutions, and more than half of the country’s population is engaged in agriculture.
In 2002, ChildFund Zambia began developing coops in rural communities; we now support 13 in the Chibombo, Chongwe, Mumbwa and Kafue districts. We link these producer-owners to government agencies for seeds, training and motivational events, as well as to the Zambia National Farmers Union for mobile phone-based market information. More than 100 of ChildFund’s parents benefit directly as cooperative members, while other families participate in seed distribution, crop marketing and field demonstrations.
Training in value chain analysis helps the coop members increase profits by selling grain to Zambia’s Food Reserve Agency. Members also reduce soil degradation by replacing chemical fertilizers with organic manure, as well as compost from food scraps or fertilizer prepared from goat droppings, known as manure tea. Coops professionalize small family farms, beginning with the establishment of cooperative governing boards. Members gain financial security through bank accounts with NATSAVE, Zambia’s National Savings and Credit Bank.
Juliet Mundia is secretary of a coop in Nachibila Village, Mumbwa District. In just five years, its 20 men and 15 women have constructed a grain shed to store their rain-fed maize (corn) and groundnut (peanut) harvests. They re-invest their profits each season into farming tools — shovels, pitchforks, watering cans, vegetable drying racks and knapsack sprayers. Trained in small livestock rearing and vegetable production, they now have a herd of goats and chickens. Their gardens, newly planted with greens, tomatoes, green pepper and cabbage, produce vegetables for sale locally and in Lusaka. With the proceeds, these families educate their children and provide them with proper nutrition and health care.
Each month Juliet and her husband sell 20 chickens, five goats and about $25 worth of vegetables. This season they expect to produce 35,000 kilograms of maize and 1,500 kilos of groundnuts. A vibrant woman, Juliet tells of how she quadrupled her income, bringing her family hope for the future. You can help too by purchasing garden tools through our gift catalog.
By Sagita Adesywi, ChildFund Indonesia
In 2012, ChildFund launched a program called Shine a Light in four countries — Dominica, Indonesia, Liberia and Senegal — thanks in large part to a major gift from a concerned donor. The project’s goal is to raise awareness of gender-based violence, assist child survivors of sexual abuse and help communities develop child-protective systems and responses. In four blog posts, we’ll learn about the progress made in these countries; today we focus on Indonesia.
“I was a dropout by my second year of junior high school. I didn’t like the school, the other students and the teachers. They said I was naughty, and I was bullied too,” says Chandra, a 16-year-old boy from Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia. “Paulus, the director of KOMPASS, ChildFund’s local partner organization in Semarang, invited me to join the Child Forum and to get back into school. Now I am catching up my education through the informal school and actively involved at the Child Forum. If I hadn’t joined the Child Forum, I would only be a dropout and a motorcycle club hotshot.”
As a member of the Child Forum, Chandra participated in a recent workshop on gender-based violence, part of the Shine a Light project. In an effort to prevent and respond to gender-based violence against children, ChildFund has worked through local partners to educate youth on the issue of violence between intimate partners — a growing problem in Indonesia. The participants in turn serve as peer educators in their communities.
“At the gender-based violence training, we learned about gender and violence, focusing on children and young girls,” says Irma, 18, one of the youth facilitators. “After the training, we held group discussions to get to know what the issues are among us.”
More and more, young people are experiencing violence in dating relationships, not just marriages. These programs are showing Indonesian youth how to manage these relationships in safe and healthy ways, preventing violence before it starts.
The youth facilitators led group discussions with 80 children and youth from several schools. The groups were divided by age: 10-12, 13-17 and 18-24.
Not everyone is comfortable talking these sensitive issues, Chandra explains. “We played some games to lighten the atmosphere, so they could feel more relaxed.”
“I was the facilitator for the 18-to-24 group,” says Irma. “The physical and emotional abuses are also considered as normal for them. They didn’t realize that when they tease or make fun of someone, it could hurt the other person. In the training, I learned that we may also be the person who did the violence toward others without even realizing it.”
Helping children and youth learn about safe and healthy dating practices involves establishing good communication between partners, understanding gender equality and stereotypes, creating boundaries, expressing feelings and perceiving signs of possible dating violence, among other lessons.
Stefanie facilitated the 13-to-17 group. “I found some of them have experienced violence in dating because they were afraid to say no,” she says. “They are afraid of losing their boyfriends. They don’t know to whom to share. They need someone they can trust.”
The physical and emotional abuses are also considered as normal for them. They didn’t realize that when they tease or make fun of someone, it could hurt the other person.
She remembers a girl who was raped and became pregnant, which caused her to drop out of school. “The Community Development Agency of Semarang contacted the Child Forum to ask our opinions on that case. Through the discussion, we found out that students were sharing sexual content on mobile phones at school. We then held a sharing session with the students at the school on violence against children and on reproductive health.”
The facilitators have learned that peer involvement makes students listen more closely than to adults dictating rules.
“When the information is delivered by their own friends, it is more easily accepted and understood,” Irma says. “When it is delivered by older people, the kids tend to be quiet.”
Through the Child Forum, ChildFund also provides leadership training for youth to encourage and support them to be the leaders and role models among their peers. With youth facilitators in the students’ communities, more young people will hopefully feel more comfortable seeking the help they need.
“If I hadn’t joined the Child Forum, I would still be the quiet and shy girl, only focus on academic lessons,” Irma says. “I wouldn’t have any broad ideas about the issues that affect children. Now, since I have joined many activities at the Child Forum, I know more! I was really idolizing Stefanie. I think she is really cool. She knows and shares many things to other children, like the issues of gender-based violence.”
In 2012, ChildFund launched a program called Shine a Light in four countries — Dominica, Indonesia, Liberia and Senegal — thanks in large part to a major gift from a concerned donor. The project’s goal is to raise awareness of gender-based violence, assist child survivors of sexual abuse and help communities develop child-protective systems and responses. In four blog posts, we’ll learn about the progress made in these countries; today we examine Dominica.
By Martha Joseph, ChildFund Caribbean Area Manager, and Isaac Trice, Social Work Intern
Young men and boys from one of Dominica’s most deprived communities are seeing their lives transformed through the Man-Up program, designed to empower them to make responsible choices while respecting the rights of girls and women. This opportunity is made possible through the Shine a Light project.
In Dominica, sexual abuse is the most prevalent form of gender-based violence afflicting children. The goal of Shine a Light is to reduce the incidence of gender-based violence against children, by empowering young people and creating safe environments.
Gender socialization research has produced some understanding of the connections between gender identity and violence affecting children. Boys often learn early to identify maleness with strength and aggressive behavior, according to a 2009 study. Man-Up, geared toward boys and youths ages 6 to 24, addresses such aggression and the frustration of males living in Dominica’s at-risk communities.
Thirteen-year-old Greg attends the events, and he has developed a strong passion to make his community a better place. Greg has lived all of his life in this community with high unemployment, juvenile delinquency and student dropout rates, as well as frequent drug use and sexual abuse. Most people who become successful move out of the area, and only two boys out of 17 attending the first session said they planned to stay in the community.
A strong student and soccer player for his school team, Greg recognizes that there are many who will not be able to leave, so he is taking a leading role in contributing to his community by coordinating activities and recruiting friends to participate. His first major project was a cleanup of the local community center and its surroundings to make it safe for all of the young men who play there.
“The community center is the place I feel safest,” Greg says. “We want to make it just a little bit better.”
Man-Up aims to help young men to express themselves in a positive manner instead of violently and destructively. Sessions focus on issues of respect for self and others; gender identity norms and their implications; community responsibility; brotherhood; goal setting; and sexual and reproductive health.
Soccer has become an important way to teach lessons. Shane, another young man in the program, explains, “By playing soccer, we learn how to work as a team to achieve the positive goal of winning. We learn the importance of rules and that violence does not solve problems, it only makes things worse.”
The national government of Dominica is making major strides in combating sexual violence. Stay tuned for a blog post soon about how ChildFund Caribbean is assisting this important effort through Shine a Light.
By Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia
In 2012, ChildFund launched a program called Shine a Light in four countries — Dominica, Indonesia, Liberia and Senegal — thanks in large part to a major gift from a concerned donor. The project’s goal is to raise awareness of gender-based violence, assist child survivors of sexual abuse and help communities develop child-protective systems and responses. In four blog posts, we’ll learn about the progress made in these countries; today, we focus on Liberia.
In Liberia, Shine a Light was launched in Klay Town, Klay District, Bomi County. The project targets 200 children in two schools — 100 boys and 100 girls aged 10 to 17.
Schools in Liberia are rife with sexual exploitation and abuse. Sexual exploitation and abuse, a form of gender-based violence, is an abuse of a position of authority for sexual purposes. In 2012, research among 800 girls in four of Liberia’s counties found that 88.7 percent had experienced a sexual violation, 40.2 percent had engaged in transactional sex, and 47 percent had endured sexual coercion — citing classmates, teachers, and school personnel as the main perpetrators.
To respond to this enormous challenge with the aim of preventing sexual exploitation and abuse before it happens, the project has formed two clubs for girls. These clubs provide a safe space in the school setting where girls may interact with each other and community mentors. Community mentors are individuals who live and work in the same communities as the girls and who demonstrate interest in empowering both girls and boys to stop sexual exploitation and abuse at school.
Utilizing a dynamic and interactive curriculum, club members and community mentors together address important issues such as sexual harassment, HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, prevention of unintended pregnancy, and reproductive myths. Girls also receive financial education where they spend time learning about options for income generation, how to control spending, learning the differences between needs and wants, and how to save. Girls will be exploring options to open savings accounts and form savings groups.
However, because boys and teachers are also important partners to end sexual exploitation and abuse, the project engages these critical groups. For example, boys are learning about the causes and consequences of sexual exploitation and abuse and are receiving financial education. The project works with teachers and school administrators to reinvigorate and apply a school code of conduct for all personnel.
Gender-based violence has long been an issue of critical importance in Liberia. The national government started a national effort to fight gender-based violence in 2012, focusing on a community-based observation network to identify problems and address them quickly. In 2007, the World Health Organization worked with Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development to interview 2,828 women about violence in their relationships.
According to the study, 93 percent had been subjected to at least one abusive act. Of those who survived violence, 48.5 percent said they were forced to work as sex workers; 13.6 percent of survivors were younger than 15. Rape cases are the most frequently reported serious crime in Liberia, and in 2007, 46 percent of reported rapes involved children under age 18; sexual assaults frequently occurred during Liberia’s political strife as a tool to control civilians, according to a 2012 Liberian government report.
Despite the response by Liberia’s government, sexual violence remains a serious problem, with a total of 2,493 sexual and gender-based violent crimes being reported across the country in 2012 and 2013, according to the Ministry of Gender and Development.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has taken on gender equality and gender-based violence as key causes in her administration, said in a November speech: “In Liberia, through the pain and anguish experienced by each of these victims, we have found the strength and the courage to start to build a new, transformed society — where women enjoy equal rights and fair treatment, and where their productive role in society and the economy is acknowledged. In my country, women occupy high-ranking government positions; rape, though continuing, has been criminalized; and women have greater property and custodial rights.”
By Corinne Mazzeo, ChildFund Health and Nutrition Advisor
The 5th Birthday and Beyond campaign recognizes the importance of investing in the first five years of life to ensure that children survive and thrive well beyond their fifth birthday. ChildFund is one of more than 100 nonprofit organizations, businesses and philanthropic groups participating in this effort.
The period from conception to 5 years is a critical time in human development. Starting even before a child is born, the brain is developing. In fact, the brain is developing most rapidly — and is most vulnerable — during these first few years of life.
Before a child turns 3, his or her brain is 2.5 times as active as the average adult brain, making more than 700 new synapses (connections between nerve cells that transmit information) each second. This defines a child’s health and developmental trajectory and determines a great deal of his or her future.
This is why investing in programs that target infants and young children — the age group from conception to 5 years — is so important. Children aren’t the only ones who benefit; so do their families and society as a whole. For every dollar invested in early childhood development, there is a return of between $4 and $17, which contributes to a healthier and more peaceful society. Also, according to the World Bank, high-quality services for infants and young children promote gender and socioeconomic equality.
When considering how to design high-quality services for this age group, it is important to recognize that all aspects of a young child’s life are interconnected. Their physical health depends on good nutrition, and their home lives strongly influence their emotional well-being.
Let’s look at nutrition and brain development. If a baby is undernourished, she can’t learn as well as she should, she can’t fully interact with her peers, and she can’t explore. The link between nutrition and physical growth may seem obvious — how often do we tell our kids, “Eat your vegetables so you will be strong” — but nutrition is also essential for brain development. Just as the body needs nourishment to grow and develop, so does the brain.
In recent years, we have learned more about brain development, and it is clear that children need more than just good nutrition to reach their full physical and cognitive potential.
Another critical piece is stimulation, which is necessary to build and strengthen the brain’s architecture. Children’s early experiences with caregivers and their environment have a direct impact on their physical and mental health throughout their lives. Love, affection, interaction and play — along with fulfilled health and nutritional needs — create the attachment that stimulates healthy growth and development.
As a result, leaders around the world — including ChildFund — are increasingly focused on the integration of nutrition and stimulation. A growing body of research suggests that when these two areas of intervention are combined, the whole is greater than the two parts. An infant benefits more than if the interventions are delivered separately. So, what does this look like in real life for a mother and her baby?
One example is that well-baby visits address the interconnected needs of parent and child. Usually, when a mother brings her baby to a clinic for growth monitoring, she receives education and counseling on infant feeding practices (and, ideally, about her own nutrition as well). But this meeting can also be an opportunity to discuss the importance of stimulation to facilitate the baby’s brain development.
For example, a health worker can encourage the mother to actively engage with her baby and talk to him during mealtimes. This simple message builds upon the existing counseling about nutrition and can help reinforce the importance of responsive caregiving. When the mother is empowered to interact with her child this way, the baby’s cognitive development improves — and so do his chances for a brighter future.
By Erin Nicholson, ChildFund Staff Writer
Last year in Belarus, a young man named Vlad passed the Baranovichi University entrance exams. A significant but fairly routine achievement, perhaps, except that Vlad was born with cerebral palsy. And in Belarus, his acceptance into college was nothing short of groundbreaking.
Although cognitively Vlad is very capable — he can quote Dumas with ease and loves classical literature by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — the palsy makes his speech unclear, and he has trouble writing or using a keyboard. He almost missed out on going to college altogether; over and over he was prevented from taking entrance exams because students weren’t allowed any kind of assistance during the tests.
His break finally came after the vice rector of Baranovichi University attended a ChildFund-supported training on inclusive education, the USAID-funded project Community Services to Vulnerable Groups. She shared her new knowledge with colleagues, and Vlad was able to take the exam by answering questions verbally. He passed and even had the highest scores among all applicants that year.
In Belarus, more than 26,000 children are considered to have a disability and as many as 120,000 have special educational needs, according to UNICEF. These are alarmingly high numbers, especially for a country with just under 9.5 million people, and have nearly tripled since 1990. A complex mix of problems may be to blame, including the lingering effects of post-Soviet Union economic depression and the trauma of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion nearly 30 years ago.
There is not any direct evidence proving that long-term radiation exposure caused an increase in health problems in Belarus, but the economic devastation following the disaster resulted in widespread post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety throughout the population. Along with chronically high unemployment, the prevalence of smoking, alcoholism and overall poor nutrition contribute to an increase in disease and disabilities.
And in a country with limited economic resources, the infrastructure to support children who need assistance just isn’t there. So what happens to them? Institutionalization and exclusion from family and society is common, and children with disabilities, who are often seen as a burden or even an embarrassment, overwhelm orphanages. Rarely do they receive the physical, cognitive and emotional support they need — much less an education. The communities in Belarus where we work have seen some improvement, with the number of institutionalized children dropping to an average of 6 percent in 2009, down from the national average of 25 percent.
With the right support, life for these children can be better. As of 2012, 4,000 children and family members benefited from the USAID-funded inclusive education project. Vlad is gaining an education, as well as future opportunities and more independence. After college, he hopes to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Recently, Belarus leaders have begun to prioritize inclusive education for children with disabilities, thanks in part to groundbreaking cases like Vlad’s and the work by ChildFund and other groups. More children are in a position to become leaders and have greater hope for the future, just like Vlad hopes to be.
Consider contributing to ChildFund’s Fund a Project for children living with disabilities in Belarus, giving them access to necessary classroom equipment. You can keep the momentum going for Vlad and other young people.