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Children still grow up separated from their families in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
SOS social centres help strengthen families, and prevent family break up
At the SOS Children’s Villages social centre in Urgench, South-Western Uzbekistan, Aziz* is making a picture. With the encouragement of his psychologist, he carefully glues dried lentils into the shape of a tree. A split-pea sun shines from the top corner. He has a cheeky smile; he looks like a typical five-year-old. But Aziz is 11. Neglected and abandoned by parents who couldn’t cope with raising a child, when he came to the centre six year ago he couldn’t speak. No school would take him. Now, thanks to intensive work done with him by SOS, he is in grade 4 and lives with a loving family.
Aziz is one of 36 children in Khorezm living in 6 family groups, as part of an SOS project on family-based care. When there is no option for the child of staying with their biological parents, these houses provide the affection and normality that institutional care cannot offer.
“I have a mother and three sisters and brothers,” Aziz smiles shyly, “I like to play hide and seek and play chess.” He returns to making his picture. “When my mother sees my picture she will say, ‘good job!’”
However, family-based care is only one part of what the project provides. Most of the work it does in Khorezm, through its social centres and community outreach services, is aimed at preventing the breakdown of families.
The Urgench SOS social centre works with vulnerable families, many of whom have experienced problems such as divorce, economic difficulties, alcoholism, and conviction. Individuals get psychological and practical support to help them cope. They receive training in parenting skills. A labour specialist and lawyer help parents access training in budgeting, computer literacy, catering, and tailoring. They also offer information on social security, disability benefit rights and alimony. Mothers who have graduated from the programme provide peer support.
In a classroom brightly decorated with cartoon characters, 5 pre-schoolers with extra educational and emotional needs are playing. The boys bounce on rubber horses while the girls do jigsaws. Each week, working with clay, or acting out their emotions with toys from an individual toy therapy box, they learn ways to reduce their aggression and hyperactivity.
“The results are visible,” says their psychologist. “These children get better assessments from kindergarten and show improved learning. The parents are enthusiastic. They pick up parenting skills and this helps stabilise their relationships with their children.”
“We don’t want to fill our children’s homes,” says Gulnoza Abidova, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages. “Wherever possible, children should be with their biological parents. The families we work with care for their children, but they need support to stay together. Our work helps strengthen families, and prevents family break up.”
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.