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Were not attending primary school in 2011, 53 per cent girls.
Family-based care helps vulnerable children lead normal lives
In a family house in a quiet back street in Urgench, South-Western Uzbekistan, Firuza* (48) proudly introduces three of her six children. She’s a solid, straightforward woman with bright, intelligent eyes. The boys, aged 8, 10 and 12, all with matching fluffy crew-cuts, are serious and respectful. They sit in a row and talk about football, their eyes lighting up at the mention of Real Madrid and Lionel Messi. The oldest wants to be a dentist when he leaves school. The others want to be army officers. Soon the youngest sidles up to his mother, whispering in her ear that he wants to play in the yard with his brothers. She pats his arm gently and the kids barrel outside, laughing.
“Here the door is always open,” she smiles. “They play with friends. My children grow up freely.”
But it wasn’t always like this.
A decade ago, Firuza and her husband were mourning the loss of their only child and thinking of adoption. When they heard that SOS children’s villages were recruiting for women to take part in an initiative to house vulnerable children in family-like settings, they jumped at the chance. They weren’t the only ones. 68 women applied for just 6 places. Happily, Firuza was accepted. After attending training with SOS psychologists and social workers, she agreed to be allocated 6-8 children.
“I would have taken 10 if they’d asked me, because I was just thinking about the good home I could give them,” she says. “I grew up in a typical Uzbek extended family. There were 21 of us, brothers, sisters and cousins. Kids are sweet, so the hardships you endure are also sweet.”
The children came to her at intervals. First four unrelated children, orphaned or abandoned. Then a pair of siblings who came from a background of severe neglect. Feruza lowers her eyes and her voice.
“The youngest two have experienced serious trauma. When they first came, they were so scared they would wet themselves. In the evenings, they would gobble down food and get straight into bed. For the first 6 months, they would wake at night, screaming, so I would take them into bed with me to comfort them. When they began to relax they started to talk. I once cried for three days when they told me stories about what had happened to them.” She rubs her eyes, shaking her head at the memory. “It helped to call the SOS coordinator and talk. Even now, the kids can speak to the psychologist. If a child goes into himself, the psychologist opens him up. They are open with me too. If they have a problem, they tell me. They call me mother. God willing, I will be a mother to these children forever.”
The children attend the local school. Although a special liaison teacher helps the family and SOS keep up with the kids’ progress, most of their teachers and the community don’t know that they are not Firuza’s biological children. SOS has legal guardianship, but the children take Firuza’s family name.
“They are growing up as siblings in a regular neighbourhood. They don’t feel any different. Most importantly, this means they don’t need to revisit the traumas they have experienced. They can move on.”
Even though family-based care may be more complex to administer, Firuza thinks the model is a good one.
“In institutions, even in the smaller children’s homes in Tashkent and Samarkhand, there are gates. Visitors must sign in and out. Those kids don’t feel like other kids. Of course, ideally, children should be with their biological parents, but if that is not possible, family-based care gives them normality. For example, in our home, it’s great for the boys that my husband is here to help raise them as men. In the holidays, we visit my family; they have aunts, cousins, grandparents, just like any other children. If I ever go home alone, my relatives ask ‘why didn’t you bring the kids?’!”
SOS children’s villages director Gulnoza Abidova adds:
“Children who grow up in family care have fewer problems with adjusting to life, which means less delinquency and social difficulty. The children face less stigma and the individualised approach supports the child’s best interests. Kids are less at risk of abuse because of the transparency of the setting.”
There are giggles outside. The boys come clattering in, pink-faced, shirts un-tucked. Later they’ll help their mother make somsars. She’ll sit with them while they do their homework and then they’ll watch cartoons on the TV. Firuza touches her youngest’s face.
“I feel really lucky and happy to be in this job. I was childless and now I have six children. I have great hopes for them. The world is opening up to them. My advice to other parents? Don’t spare your love for your children.”
UNICEF supports the Government of Uzbekistan by developing mechanisms that prevent family separation and offer alternative family-based care services. This is also in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
These efforts foster a long-term and sustainable approach of child protection system. Emphasis is on developing family services and the existing gate-keeping system to prevent children being placed in institutional care unnecessarily. These initiatives will bring together different sectors to strengthen organizations involved in providing referrals to social services like the Guardianship and Trusteeship Authorities and Commission on Minors.
* Name changed