ECON: ... and progress in Eastern Europe

Erik Moeller (
Wed, 30 Apr 1997 21:42:23 +0200

Eastern Europe reform leaves children behind

Monday, 21 April 1997: Social reform in Central
and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of
Independent States and the Baltic States has been
piecemeal and uncertain in its aims, strategies
and funding, says a UNICEF report issued today,
which adds that economic reform planners have
overlooked the welfare needs of millions of
vulnerable children.

Launching the report entitled Children at risk in
Central and Eastern Europe: Perils and promises,
in Bonn today, John Donohue, Director of the
UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern
Europe, Commonwealth of Independent States and
Baltic States, points in particular to the fate of
the one million children in public care, trapped
in the gulf between economic progress and social

"At the beginning of the transition to market
economies," Mr. Donohue said, "hopes ran high that
the sub-human conditions prevailing in some
children's homes would soon disappear. But
numerous difficulties have stood in the way of
major improvements in institutional care or a
shift to more humane options for children without
parental care. Even more worrying, there has been
little change in attitudes and too many children
are still being abandoned to state care. In some
countries, like Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, the
public child protection system has virtually
collapsed. In most of the countries in transition
-- not only in Romania, which has received most
publicity -- the rates of children in public care
have increased."

This increase, beyond being a serious problem in
its own right, is also an indicator of the higher
risks many children have been facing during the
transition years. Many families have had to cope
with a devastating deterioration in their material
conditions. Skills, social values and coping
strategies developed in earlier decades have
proved vastly inadequate. Poverty and social
dislocation have put enormous burdens on families
who often have limited capacity or experience in
taking responsibility for their children's
welfare, traditionally the task of state
authorities. Since child monitoring and checking
mechanisms, including those normally to be
expected in school and health systems, have been
eroded and are in need of reform, children are

The answer, the report says, lies in political
will to put the needs of children high on the
reform agenda. New and humane social welfare
networks would benefit all children in Central and
Eastern Europe. Fears that only the poor,
marginalised and excluded would be helped are

The publication, covering 18 countries in the
region, is the fourth in a series of monitoring
reports that have grown in coverage and impact.
Since the first report was released in November
1993 covering nine countries of the region, the
scope of the research has expanded to take in 18
countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus,
Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia,
Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia,
Slovenia, Poland, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine.
The reports are prepared by the UNICEF-funded
International Child Development Centre in
Florence, Italy, and are intended as a "tool to
alert public opinion and public authorities to the
problems of children and other vulnerable groups
in transitional economies, and to forge
international cooperation to improve the situation
for children in these countries."

The latest report chronicles the substantial
income drops families have experienced, rampant
unemployment and family benefit losses in many
Central and Eastern European states and, in
countries of the former Soviet Union,
sky-rocketing wage inequality. It analyses the
welfare impact of increasing trends in
single-parent households, falling birth rates and
growing divorce rates. Additionally, it documents
children's exposure to conflict and displacement
in the region, and the hardships that result.

Poor nutrition, alcoholism, smoking, stress in the
workplace and at home, increasing violence and
premature death are also taking their toll. In the
former Soviet Union especially, there has been an
unprecedented increase in the deaths of
working-age men. Across the region as a whole,
hundreds of thousands of children have experienced
the premature death of parents (mostly fathers but
also mothers) in their prime child-rearing ages.
The most obvious risk children face from these
traumas is orphanhood. The report estimates the
increase in the number of children and teenagers
who have lost a parent over 1990-1995 at about
700,000, three-quarters of them in Russia.

However, the underlying potential risks are
multi-dimensional and go well beyond the numbers
of premature parental deaths. The pressures of the
transition appear to be splitting families apart
and eroding parental responsibility. In addition
to higher divorce rates, fewer divorced fathers
provide regular support to their family now; the
number of criminal cases for non-payment of
alimony, for example, is rising in several

Health and education risks have also increased.
Today parents can no longer count on universal
public health and education systems nor on the
same levels of efficiency in these systems to
screen and check for risks their children are
facing. Parents are having to take greater
responsibility for the development of their
children at a time when they are less able to do
so and when child health and education needs are

Former full enrolment in primary schools has
ceased to exist and the growing use of fees means
that it is children form poorer households who
face problems of access to pre-primary education,
extracurricular activities and remedial help. In
Russia, for example, some 5 per cent of primary
school students -- about 100,000 in each grade --
appear to be out of school. In Romania, secondary
school enrolment rates were down 14 per cent in

Deprived of society-level protection mechanisms,
children and adolescents in particular are falling
prey to drug abuse, alcohol and tobacco addiction,
violence, child prostitution, sexually transmitted
diseases including HIV/AIDS, and crime. A rapid
assessment survey of drug abuse in the Czech
Republic completed in 1996 found that drug abuse
is no longer only a problem of homeless and street
children, but is gradually becoming "normal" in
secondary schools. Among students surveyed, 14 per
cent were regular drug users and 37 per cent
reported having tried drugs at least once. Teenage
suicide is also on the increase in many countries
of the region, including all Central European
countries (except Hungary), the Baltic and many
countries of the CIS.

Finally there are also indications of increasing
child morbidity rates. The transition has seen a
marked growth in the incidence of infectious
diseases such as diphtheria and tuberculosis,
particularly in countries of the CIS. The
reappearance of these "diseases of poverty" is
especially troubling, as they had been nearly

"In short," Mr. Donohue warns, summing up the
conclusions of the report, "it may prove much more
difficult to address adequately the risk
situations than was anticipated at the close of
the 1980s.

"Traditional family support systems offering cash
benefits and in-kind services in many cases do not
reach the needy or provide appropriate help. There
is an acute need in the whole region to encourage
and bolster the development of a full new
infrastructure of family support, focusing on
providing a flexible range of community-based
social services for parents and children in need.
These could be provided by local and national
governments as well as, with public encouragement,
the voluntary and private sector. Health,
education and social welfare agencies need to work
together to provide such services. All the
governments of this region have signed the
Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is time
to turn the promises of the Convention into
reality and put the needs of children first."

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[But at least those people are free. And everyone knows that everything
was much worse in communism, people just didn't know. Boundless
expansion! May the money be with you.]