Standing up for the rights of orphans: Lessons from Central Asia
by Jude Collins
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused widespread family breakdown in the Central Asian States. This led to large numbers of children being taken into orphanages.
A Central Asian friend explains: ‘In one week, people lost everything. Factories closed and there was no money to pay salaries. Many men really struggled. They started to drink and take drugs. The women suddenly had to take responsibility for providing for their families, and many went to Russia to look for work. The children were left with relatives, neighbours or even strangers. Many of them ended up homeless or in orphanages. Now, many thousands of children are in orphanages or living on the street.’
When children reach the age of 16, they are expected to leave the orphanages. However, they often lack essential life skills and have nowhere to go. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and addictions. Some do not have identity cards. This means they cannot access housing, employment, medical care or legal support, and are not able to vote when they are older. Many become involved in crime or prostitution, or end up living on the streets.
A voice for the voiceless
Genesis* was the first organisation in the Central Asian States to focus on the issues these young people face. Working closely with local churches, they help the young people become part of society again. They offer mentoring, training, careers advice and legal support. They also provide transition homes until the young people find somewhere permanent.
But Genesis did not want to treat only the symptoms of the problem. They decided to lobby the government and advocate for the rights of these young people.
At first the government was suspicious and refused to listen. But over six years, Genesis lobbied and built strong relationships with the local and national government. Their perseverance was finally rewarded. In 2016 they were asked to help develop some new laws to protect the rights of children leaving orphanages.
Encouraging foster care
Another organisation, Transform*, runs a crisis centre for vulnerable children. This centre provides temporary care for children before they either return home or join a foster family. When Transform started doing this, fostering was a new idea in the Central Asian States. Many people questioned what they were doing. But Transform had a clear vision. They longed for any child who could not live with their natural family to find a new place in a foster family. They knew that their government had signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (see page 3), making it more likely they would support a new national law.
The breakthrough came when a social worker put Transform in contact with the national government’s ministry responsible for children and families. Transform then created a network with other organisations interested in fostering. Together, they lobbied the ministry until a national law was passed, governing everything to do with fostering.
Now they are putting the law into practice by making sure children in their town are always found a suitable home. Each foster family receives training, ongoing support and a financial allowance per child.
Because of this, over the last ten years not a single child from the town has had to enter an orphanage.
Speaking up for families
Alongside local churches, Transform also works with vulnerable families to try and prevent family breakdown in the first place. They provide counselling and vocational training, leading to more stable families.
Local-level advocacy is an important part of Transform’s work with families. They help families regain lost documents such as identity cards and property papers. They also write letters to the local authorities on behalf of children who have been denied access to schooling. This problem can arise when children do not have the proper identity papers, pre-school education, clothing or shoes. It can also happen because of prejudice against poor families. Sometimes these letters achieve results, and the local authorities ensure that schools accept these vulnerable children.
Government organisations now cooperate with Transform when they become aware of vulnerable children. They see them as professional and trustworthy.
Key lessons learnt
Apply biblical principles. Genesis and Transform are motivated by the biblical principle, ‘Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow’ (Isaiah 1:17). Their desire to share God’s love with the most vulnerable people motivates them to keep going, even when they experience opposition.
Involve the local church. This greatly increases the impact that small organisations can have. In the Central Asian States, many Christian families foster vulnerable children. Church members teach the children in transition centres new skills such as cooking and sewing. They also provide pastoral support and counselling. Lawyers from the church give time and expertise for free to help restore identity documents and lobby for children’s rights.
Persevere! It took Genesis and Transform many years to convince the government and other organisations that there was a problem, and also that they were serious about being part of the solution.
Eventually, though, their hard work and integrity achieved results. They can now influence the development of laws relating to vulnerable children at both local and national level, and can help ensure these are put into practice.
IDEAS FOR USING
- In a group, discuss the policies your local and national decision-makers have on caring for orphans. Do you agree with these?
- Could you use any of the ideas in this article to lobby decision-makers about orphans’ rights?
Visit www.tearfund.org/advocacy_toolkit for free advocacy resources.
Jude Collins is a Project Information Officer for Tearfund. She has previous community development experience in Nepal and Honduras.
*Names have been changed.
Creative ways to lobby decision-makers
What is lobbying?
Lobbying can be understood as ‘direct contact with decision-makers’. Its main aim is to influence decision-makers to bring about changes in laws, policies and practices.
Lobbying can include:
- Writing a letter
- Making a phone call
- Arranging a visit or a meeting
- Conducting a visit or a meeting
- Enabling a decision-maker to go and meet with a community affected by the issue.
Using role-play creatively: an example
Genesis* staff were asked to present their case to members of parliament. They took some young people from the transition centres with them. Together, they set up this very effective role play:
- Each government minister was given a card. Written on each card was a typical situation a young person might face after leaving an orphanage.
- The ministers were asked to play the part of these young people during a role play.
- The young people played the part of local officials (medical, housing, employment etc).
- The ministers spoke with the ‘local officials’ and were ‘denied access’ to most of the goods and services they requested. This was because their characters had criminal records or no money, education, identity cards etc.
By the end of the role play, the ministers were deeply moved. They formed a working group to look more closely at the problem.