Children with disabilities at risk in eastern Ukraine

The Krasnodonskiy orphanage is located in Krasnodon, in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, in what is now a non-government-controlled area. It is home to 126 children, aged 3 to 18, who have a range of disabilities. A staff of 106 women look after them around the clock.

Before the conflict began, the institution would receive weekly supplies of food from state authorities, and also money to buy additional food, medication and other products and services, explains deputy headmistress Elena Sidorova.

One day the supplies stopped coming. “We really did not know what to do – until the local population learned about the situation, and started giving,” she says. It is these private donations alone, she adds, that are feeding the children.

Hygiene is also a concern. The supply of diapers is not regular, and there is a need for cleaning products and personal hygiene items. Mattresses are a pressing need. Many of the children wet their beds, and, with diapers in short supply, and with some children bedridden, the condition of the beds can be dire.

“Now it’s summer, and we can clean mattresses and put them out to dry,” says Ms. Sidorova. “A mattress lasts about six months before we need to replace it. We are really worried that, when winter comes, we will not have usable mattresses, pillows and blankets for the children.”

It is unclear how long private donations will be required. Funding from Kyiv no longer reaches the institution, and support from de facto authorities has not yet materialized.

We ask the staff about their salaries and learn that they were last paid five months ago. To leave the job, nevertheless, is out of the question. They know that the children would not survive without their help.

“We really care about these children,” says Ms. Sidorova. “People sometimes come from outside and are upset about conditions here. Try to imagine then how we feel. We know every child, we recognize their voice if we hear one of them cry.”

The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is holding, but the staff fear what would happen if the shelling were to restart. Earlier in the year, when the shelling was heavy, they ran up and down a narrow staircase, carrying the children to the basement and placing them on the floor. More than half of the children at Krasnodonskiy cannot walk.

There has been talk of transferring children who live in institutions in non-government-controlled areas to a government-controlled area. Ms. Sidorova says that the reason the children have not been brought to relative safety and better care is not for lack of will; rather, it is the operation itself that is too unsafe and logistically complicated.

The children of Krasnodonskiy do not have the option of returning to their families. For the great majority, parents have given up legal guardianship. Only in exceptional cases do the families visit their children.

“Usually parents just place their children here and forget about them,” observes Ms. Sidorova.

“This case is yet another example of how the most vulnerable children are paying the highest price in the current conflict,” says UNICEF Ukraine Representative Giovanna Barberis. “The girls and boys in institutions were already among Ukraine’s most vulnerable groups, and today they are among those most severely affected by the conflict.”

UNICEF advocates for family care for every child, especially children with disabilities. The organization also responds to the immediate life-saving needs of children in institutions.
After learning about the needs on a recent visit, we immediately proceeded to purchase mattresses for the children, and we are coordinating with other agencies to ensure that life-saving support for these children is regularized.

Out of some 8 million children living in Ukraine, 167,000 are registered with disabilities. More than 70,000 of these children live in institutions. UNICEF and partners promote early intervention to enable families to care for their children with disabilities. At the same time, UNICEF is working on advocacy, to improve policies and general attitudes on disability.

Sven G. Simonsen is an Emergency Communication Specialist working at UNICEF Ukraine.

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