Human rights | 16.01.13 | 12:30
Careless: Child abuse, violence still common in orphanages, boarding schools in Armenia
9 –year-old Tigran Papikyan, who escaped from Yerevan Childcare and Protection Boarding Institution N1 in December 2012
The boy, Tigran Papikyan, attending Yerevan Childcare and Protection Boarding Institution N1, resorted to escape for the second time as a desperate measure.
Child protection officer at the Armenian Ombudsman’s Office Aida Muradyan quotes Tigran as saying that he had been beaten on a regular basis by “Miss Lilit, who hit him on the head with a karate stick.”
While the internal investigation is on to find out whether there were actually instances of beating or not, experts continue to argue and confirm with evidence that violence still exists even in normal general schools. Children at orphanages are six times as likely to become victims of violence as their peers in families,” says deputy representative of UNICEF in Armenia Cristina Roccella.
Many do not exclude that it is violence that had driven 15-year-old Zina Simonyan to commit suicide at Nubarashen Boarding School No. 11 last July. The teenager fell to death from an upper-floor bathroom window (which should have been barred).
At the same boarding in the Yerevan suburb of Nubarashen for years a teacher sexually harassed children. Levon Avagyan stood before court only in 2010 under pressure from society alerted to the abuse by an activist.
1989-90 school graduates also told stories of sexual violence used against them by the staff, in particular a group rape case that the principal, Meruzhan Yengibaryan, was aware of and told them to “keep their mouth shut”. But those publications did not have any legal consequences; the principal simply resigned.
Ten orphanages and 28 other child care facilities (daycare centers, special boarding schools) now have a total of 4,900 children, and 80 percent of them have parents or families. Most of them attend these establishments because of facing social problems, or are ‘social orphans’, as they are often called.
The 2010-11 report of the Public Monitoring Group on the situation in the special education institutions of the Ministry of Education and Science published last month also revealed different types of violence used in 13 special schools that were monitored.
The Monitoring Group has identified not only “specific instances of violence by the staff”, but also “informal punishment mechanisms” used against children through other ‘privileged’ children by creating “a hierarchical system and an atmosphere of fear between seniors and juniors, the weak and the strong.”
“In reality the situation is terrible. In nearly all institutions all children’s rights are being violated, but the most terrible is the total indifference that exists,” Armine Gmyur-Karapetyan, a member of the Monitoring Group, told ArmeniaNow.
David Amiryan, a deputy projects director at the Open Society Foundations-Armenia (this organization has initiated and assisted the establishment of the observation group), stresses that the bigger problem is the level of perception of violence by executives and educators and their failure to take preventive measures.
“It is not necessary for there to be a case of violence for them to react. International experts point out that any evidence of a possible case of violence should be regarded as well,” he told ArmeniaNow.
“For example, a warehouse was found at one of the boarding schools and the door to it was opened only after a long argument. It had some mattresses and there was the word ‘bread’, written on the wall. So far we have no evidence of violence in this connection, but the presence of such a facility is alarming as it may be a place for punishment,” adds Amiryan, noting with regret that such issues could become a deterrent, but they are neglected.
Experts more and more tend to believe that these institutions are impossible to reform.
“Experience of many years and monitoring activities suggest that the only correct way is bringing children out of these institutions. It is impossible to change the educators by means of several trainings. If the state does want to help these children, it should help their families,” says Gmyur-Karapetyan.
Still in 2006 the United Nations launched a program aimed at reducing the number of children at orphanages under which the state should develop effective mechanisms for returning children to families. But experts fear that “orphanages have become a business” and that they are not interested in the elimination of such institutions.
Former lawmaker, member of the opposition Heritage Party Anahit Bakhshyan believes that the problem can be solved only after corruption is eradicated.
“If the number of children is reduced at orphanages, it will mean that $4 million allocated for them under the state budget annually would go to their biological or foster families, but as long as there are people with certain interests in that circle, there will be no progress made in this process. This is only a source of corruption, it is not clear what percentage of the money allocated by the state is actually spent on the child,” Bakhshyan, a veteran educator, told ArmeniaNow.
Last October, an audit conducted by the State Commission for the Protection of Economic Competition affirmed this opinion as it revealed that the squander of state funds in orphanages has acquired “quite large sizes” – certain items are purchased at prices 200 percent higher than those existing on the market and “a substantial part of the money has not served its purpose.”
According to a UNICEF study, an orphanage or another childcare institution annually spends nearly $4,000 per child, while a foster family gets the funding of about $2,500 on account of each child. Since 2008 only 21 families have provided care to orphans in Armenia, and their number does not increase because of insufficient financing.
“Instead of the maintenance of enormous orphanage buildings, that money should be directed to the elimination of poverty in families, which is the main reason for children appearing in such institutions,” UNICEF Children’s Rights Protection Officer Eduard Israyelyan told ArmeniaNow.
According to the data reported by Israyelyan, Georgia has made serious progress in this area, as within a few years there 4,700 of 5,000 children were either returned to their biological families or placed in care of foster families. In the absence of such possibilities small group homes have been set up; as a result, annually the state saves approximately $3.5 million, he added.
Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Welfare Filaret Berikyan disagrees, saying that Armenia, too, has made “serious progress” in this regard.
But data from the National Statistical Service depict a different situation: whereas in 2009 there were a total of 1,243 children in orphanages, then in 2011 that number was 1,115. In 2011, only 56 children were returned to families from orphanages, while 267 were enrolled in these facilities.