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East: UNICEF Report Highlights Plight Of Impoverished Children In Former Socialist Countries

  • Daisy Sindelar

A new report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that millions of children in former Socialist countries are living in severe poverty. The study, released in Moscow today, suggests that although countries in the region are all experiencing economic growth, the benefits are not reaching the most defenseless segment of their populations. UNICEF says poverty is robbing children of their health, education opportunities, and hope for a better future.

Prague, 13 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Alisher is just one of hundreds of children in the capital of Tajikistan who lives in desperate circumstances. Dressed in shabby clothes he finds on the street, Alisher details the harsh reality of his daily existence. He has not been to school in years.

Alisher: "My name is Alisher. I'm a beggar in the [central] park in Dushanbe."

RFE/RL: "How old are you?"

Alisher: "I'm 11 years old."

RFE/RL: "Do you have parents? Do you have a home in Dushanbe?"

Alisher: "Yes, I have parents. We have a home. My father is an alcoholic. He's unemployed. My mother doesn't work. I am the one who works -- I'm begging in the park."

RFE/RL: "What do you do here?"

Alisher: "I beg from people who are passing by. Some people give me money, some people give me food. At night, I prefer to stay here in the park. Sometimes I sleep here, sometimes I go home. Mostly I live in the park, because I don't want to go home. At home, my father asks, 'What did you bring?' And then he beats me. He beats my mother, my brothers. I don't want to go home."

Tajikistan is no exception. UNICEF's new report says that in countries throughout the former Socialist region, millions of children are living in poverty, deprived of health care and basic schooling.
The countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia are the poorest countries in the UNICEF study, and have some of the lowest levels of public expenditure on health and education.

The report, unveiled in Moscow today, suggests that fighting child poverty is not as simple as improving a country's economic health.

The report, compiled by the Innocenti Center, UNICEF's research arm, notes that all 27 countries included in the study have experienced some economic growth.

But in most cases -- from Central and Eastern Europe to the Baltics to the CIS and South East Europe -- the benefits of this growth have not been widely distributed among all demographic groups.

"Economic growth has not translated itself into child welfare and alleviating of child poverty. That is one of the key messages [of the report]," said Carel de Rooy, the UNICEF representative for Russia and Belarus. "The other message is that there are huge disparities, not only within countries, but across the region regarding poverty-related issues, also vulnerability of children. The third issue is that there has been a massive increase in drug, alcohol, cigarettes, and substance abuse among youths."

The problem is particularly worrisome in the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

They are the poorest countries in the UNICEF study, and have some of the lowest levels of public expenditure on health and education. A high proportion of their children are living in poverty, and the birth rate is growing more rapidly than elsewhere.

Other factors are also affecting the welfare of children throughout the region.

Job loss remains high in many countries, and continues to grow in places like Lithuania, Poland, and Serbia and Montenegro.

For the children of unemployed parents, de Rooy noted, this means not only poverty in the immediate present, but the loss of prospects in the future: "Children [living in poverty] are probably dropping out of school. They are hitting the job market very early. They don't have the opportunity to fully develop themselves. They are exposed to risks which are larger than the risks of children who might be in school, who might have a more normal life. And so ultimately, you have a whole generation of children whose basic rights have been violated but also who cannot be as functional in society as one might desire."

Poverty and unemployment have also sparked massive economic migration, where adults and children often travel unregistered and undocumented -- and therefore without rights or benefits.

Albania, Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan have all seen major outflows of migrants, most seeking to reach Russia or Western Europe. The UNICEF report says Albania and Armenia have lost over 25 percent of their populations to migration since 1989.

Children of migrant parents who do not travel may receive financial benefits through money sent home, but grow up without essential parental care.

These factors, de Rooy said, are contributing to a steady rise in the use of drugs and alcohol -- not to mention the accompanying risk of HIV infection and other health hazards.

The UNICEF report says governments throughout the region must work to ensure that economic growth translates into direct social benefits for families struggling with unemployment and poverty.

Until then, children like Alisher will have no one to depend on but themselves.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service and NCA's Bruce Jacobs contributed to this report.)

[The full text of the report can be found in English, Russian, and Italian at]