“Human rights start with children’s rights”

The head of the UNICEF mission in Ukraine speaks about the priorities of the state, the Soviet heritage and destroying stereotypes

By Oksana Mykoliuk

May 30, 2011 / The Day

Unfortunately, there are particularly entrenched problems linked to children’s rights protection and child abuse in Ukraine. The state has to change the whole system, bring down stereotypes and cultivate humanity in people so that the younger generation doesn’t suffer. Ukraine has only made its first steps toward eradicating child abuse, a problem that was hushed up for years. On May 24-25 an international conference focusing on children’s rights violations was held in Kyiv. It was organized by UNICEF and the Council of Europe, together with the assistance of the Ukrainian government, and attended by nearly 200 foreign experts. Its title was “Child Abuse Counteraction: From Separate Actions to Complex Strategies.” The Day before its opening The Day interviewed the head of the UNICEF mission in Ukraine Yukie MOKUO.

Judging from the name of the conference, it will be focused on creating new approaches in governmental strategies, aimed at tracking cases of child abuse and preventing them?

“The conference will address questions related to child abuse counteraction. When we talk about child abuse we have to know that it concerns not only physical punishment. Of course, physical abuse also matters, but there are also issues connected to the child’s social and emotional development. Especially for children brought up in orphanages and unable to grow in a family environment. It’s a burning issue in terms of social protection, not only in Ukraine but in other countries, too. It’s all about services provided to children and caring for them. We believe that the more children stay in orphanages, the more they are abused. We shouldn’t, however, forget about the existence of child abuse at home, both physical and psychological. Our society is also contaminated with such forms of child abuse as sexual exploitation, trafficking of children and child prostitution. So, when talking about the conference we say that we try to embrace the issues related to child protection with a complex approach. This event is of extreme importance for the Ukrainian government since Ukraine will preside over the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe from May to November this year. It’s the first conference held within the framework of the Ukrainian presidency in the Council of Europe.

“UNICEF is glad that the Ukrainian government has prioritized the question of children’s rights protection. The conference will be attended by nearly 200 experts from 23 countries of Western and Eastern Europe. They account for half of the attendance; the other half is made up of government representatives. We’ll have the UN mission (the representative of the Secretary General for Violence Against Children) and the CoE mission (the Deputy Secretary General).

“The UNICEF regional director, supervising the 23 countries of this region, will be also present. I’d like to emphasize that Ukraine promised to make children’s rights protection a priority during its CoE presidency. We want to draw attention to these questions and we want the Ukrainian government to be ready to ratify international conventions. There’s the European Convention No. 201 protecting children from sexual exploitation. There’s also the Hague Convention on international adoption, which was not ratified by Ukraine. Both of them are being worked on by the corresponding parliamentary committees and I hope that the government will ratify them. Then we will be able to say that the Ukrainian government is ready to make certain steps.”

Why do you think is it that we can’t eradicate domestic and social abuse for so many years and how does the situation in Ukraine compared to Europe?

“Unfortunately, child abuse exists all over the world. We might have an impression that abuse escalates as the media talk about it more and more. However, we understand that the situation is quite the opposite. Traditionally, family abuse has been hidden. UNICEF concentrates on social awareness improvement not only in the family but also among teachers, doctors and social workers. The more they know about the problem the better this problem will be dealt with. It’s essential that society has its eyes open to identify cases of abuse and inform the corresponding services about them. The role of teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers that come into contact with children is crucial as they are able to see a child’s problems and understand that a child is abused. In my opinion, Ukraine has made progress in this sphere. We have improved the report system and raised awareness. However, it’s not enough and I think that governmental institutions and society have to make efforts to resolve this complex of problems. The problem of child abuse is insufficiently covered in Ukrainian society compared to other European countries. Thus, Ukraine needs better mechanisms of reporting cases of child abuse.”

What kind of mechanisms?

“The awareness of people working in governmental institutions, not only in the social sector, but in law enforcement agencies as well. As for the legislative basis, there are certain problems there. At present we’re working on several amendments in the cooperation with the Verkhovna Rada. The sexual exploitation of children and child prostitution are examples of this. We’re talking about the children aged 16 to 18 that are at risk of child prostitution. Currently, they have to pay a fine but their clients are not answerable. The UN Convention includes an optional article on abuse, prostitution and sexual exploitation. It provides that any adult engaging in a sexual act with a minor is fully answerable for this. This norm doesn’t exist in Ukraine. It’s only an example. The law itself doesn’t work. We have to enforce the role of social assistance. For example, if a child is in an environment where they have to provide sexual services, we have to find a reason for this in their education and family. This way we have to protect children not only through legislation but also through social assistance that will prevent them from doing such things. Here we address the question of the social security of Ukrainian families since a lot of them live in poverty, suffer form unemployment, and have members addicted to drugs and alcohol. Of course, these problems affect their children.”

Child abuse is common in Ukraine’s orphanages. Are you going to cover this issue at the conference and what’s the UNICEF’s position?

“As for this system, we strongly protect children’s rights to grow in families. The problem of children raised outside of families is topical for many countries of the region. We can see that there are a lot of cases of child abuse in such institutions but we don’t have exact numbers. We don’t have exact statistics about how many children have been abused, in this way or another. Examples abound but we don’t have the exact statistics. Once I was invited to Shuster’s talk-show to discuss the topic of children living in orphanages. There were people there who grew up in such institutions but were successful in life. So those people could have said something good about orphanages. I was shocked that those people spoke about the abuse they experienced. Even successful people pay attention to the abuse they suffered from in orphanages. So, we are aware of such cases, but we don’t have any statistics. It can be easily explained. Let’s look at foster families. How do they build relations between parents and children? They have to care about their children, love and protect them, but they also have to provide an environment where children will grow and develop social skills. An important role is attributed to social services, that have to help. If we look at orphanages where children differ from our children a lot, they lose lots of opportunities for their development: not only in terms of social skills, but also in what regards cognitive and emotional ones. We need a powerful independent monitoring mechanism to be able to understand the level of abuse and violence in orphanages. The former powerful Soviet social security system proved to be tenuous from the point of self-repayment, profitability and efficiency in the new Ukrainian reality. The social security system has to be reformed to be able to address modern challenges. The institutions where children are [currently] kept are the heritage of the Soviet system, which has to be reformed.”

Will the questions related to children’s rights protection be resolved faster after the position of a children’s ombudsman is introduced in Ukraine?

“We rightly praise Nina Karpachova, who deals with questions related to human rights protection efficiently. Of course, in her office there are people dealing with questions of children’s rights protection, too. We see the possibilities and potential to bolster the Ukrainian ombudsman’s position to be able to better react to children’s rights violations and to protect [the children]. It’s not about just dealing with individual questions. I believe that the Ukrainian ombudsman can more actively participate in resolving problems with us, so as to be able to solve the systemic questions concerning child abuse, to reform the orphanage system and to replace it with alternative forms of family education. We think that we’re able to activate cooperation with the Ukrainian ombudsman. Ideally, UNICEF is supporting the idea to delegate the children’s rights protection issues to a children’s ombudsman. However, it’s closely related to the context of the country. Ukraine has to make its own decisions. The issue is to introduce a powerful mechanism of children’s rights protection monitoring in the South of Ukraine.”

What do you think about the transformation of the Ministry of Youth, Family and Sports into a Department at the Ministry of Education and Science?

“I’ve already expressed my opinion on behalf of UNICEF to the Ukrainian president and government. I also spoke about it during a session of the Verkhovna Rada last December. Certainly, UNICEF respects the decision of the Ukrainian government as it represents a sovereign state. UNICEF fully accepts this decision, aimed at transferring the functions of that ministry to the Ministry of Education. However, we strongly recommend that during this reform the main functions concerning children’s rights protection be preserved. We know about the presidential decree issued a month ago, ordering to transfer to the Ministry of Social Policy the functions related to the protection of children, women and families. The government is still working on determining these functions’ structure. Our organization will gladly cooperate with the Ukrainian government to perform those functions during the process of reform. We have the Department for Adoption and Protection of Children and the Department for Family and Gender Policy. Merging those two departments with the Ministry of Social Policy might be a good idea since one institution will perform all the functions. It might be an advantage.

“The next question is of a great importance. If a family experiences a difficult situation, it’s unemployed, poor or a mother raises three children on her own, such a family needs to have social protection (consultancies, legal assistance, etc.), and financial support as well. Such families in crisis should receive the whole ‘assistance package.’ If such families aren’t sufficiently protected they risk becoming asocial, which can lead to child abuse.”

Don’t you think that in half a year, when Ukraine’s presidency in the EC finishes, the Ukrainian government will lose interest in children’s rights?

“I hope that the Ukrainian government will assume specific obligations in front of the international community as you have the best opportunity to demonstrate the changes in the sphere of human and children’s rights protection. I’ve been working here for two years now and I see that you have good resources and an educated society. I don’t think that the Ukrainian government will do a foolish thing and miss this opportunity. It’s a real chance for Ukraine to show its strong points. However, work has to be done not only at a governmental level. It has to develop into specific government obligations to pursue this or that policy. This will cause certain budget expenditures directed at the protection of children. UNICEF is ready to provide its technical help any time. I hope that we’ll cooperate in future as well.”


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