ASTANA – In the coalition, A Child Should Live in a Family, veteran activist Alina Khamatdinova and a team of nongovernmental organisations, lawyers, journalists and members of Kazakhstan’s Parliament are working to change Kazakhstan’s outdated orphanage system and show just how big an impact an NGO can have.
“The main idea of the project is to conduct a big reform of the whole [orphanage] system,” Khamatdinova told The Astana Times. Currently, orphans or children in dangerous family situations are put into an orphanages, following a system that was established in the 1930s and has changed very little since then. “Society has changed, people have changed, everything is changed, but this system is still the same,” she said.
Almost 34,000 children live in orphanages and other institutions in Kazakhstan, according to the activist. The campaign, over the next 10 years, aims to get children out of institutions and into families.
Orphanages are “a disaster” for a child, according to Khamatdinova. Despite government support for facilities for at-risk children, 70 percent of those who enter the system end up economically inactive as adults, Khamatdinova said. This is because the system offers few possibilities to be socialised, to learn how to take care of themselves and interact with other people effectively.
Children placed with families fare much better, the activist said, but system-wide obstacles prevent needy children from finding the families that want to host them.
“Several years ago, these questions started to emerge on the agenda because a lot of people decided that they wanted to adopt children. People started talking about how it’s difficult; the system doesn’t work. … There are children who don’t have parents and parents who want to have children—why wasn’t there a connection? That was the starting point. That’s why we started this project,” Khamatdinova said.
Ineffective policies were keeping children and families apart rather than bringing them together, the coalition learned. “We have a lot of charity organisations that help orphanages, that help children with disabilities and so on, but nobody is looking at the system, at system mistakes. We want to focus on changing the system.”
These systematic problems include policies mandating that caretakers be no more than 45 years older than their charges—a law which Khamatdinova said prevents grandparents from taking in their grandchildren. Policies requiring official proof of income can also rule out families from villages, who Khamatdinova says may be well-equipped to care for children, but who as small-scale entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have the training or guidance to document and prove all of their income. Kazakhstan also has no system of foster families, and under its patronage system, a family hosting a child receives only 17,000 tenge ($110) dollars a month in support, while the government pays 150,000 tenge (about $970) per month per child to orphanages.
On top of that, the adoption system itself is complicated, Khamatdinova said. Mechanisms are developed locally and are not compatible across regions. And while foreigners looking to adopt children from Kazakhstan have agencies to support them and help with paperwork and other bureaucratic processes, citizens in Kazakhstan have no such help. “It’s an exhausting process,” Khamatdinova said.
Social stereotypes are another major challenge, the activist said. People think children in orphanages must be born from bad parents or that it’s impossible to help teenagers who have grown up in institutions. A Child Should Live in a Family is planning a media campaign to change people’s attitudes and to present stories of happy adoptive families.
“Most people think that it’s impossible to change the system in our country—that’s also one of the stereotypes,” Khamatdinova said. “But over the last six months, we convinced the government, the Committee for Children’s Rights under the Ministry of Education. They wouldn’t listen to us three or four months ago; they thought we were only criticising them. But now they’re active members of our movement, we have a memorandum with them, and they are working.”
One step at a time, the campaign is growing. “This year, we will start a working group for law amendments with the Parliament. We’re also just raising the issue, because before nobody was talking about it, nobody cared about this system … in our campaign, we want to inform people about what kinds of families we can offer, what kind of mechanisms should be developed to create families and create parents for these children. We want to create new mechanisms, like foster families, guest families and adoption.”
The group recently met with the Committee for Social and Cultural Development of the Mazhilis to present the current problems and explain their recommendations. “The committee decided that they should consider these amendments and they should consider the situation and how they can help with new amendments, with law changes to make the situation better and help our children to find new families,” Khamatdinova said.
This is how the NGO sector should operate, said Khamatdinova, who has worked with NGOs for 17 years and now sees big changes in the system. The early civic movement in Kazakhstan raised issues, discussed problems and made recommendations, but provided very few actual services. “Now the NGO sector is realising that the mission of most NGOs should focus on local services to special target groups. … Our NGOs have started thinking that our NGO system should be based on needs and that they should assess needs and then provide services. … We have 25,000 non-commercial organisations in Kazakhstan, but in reality there are, I would say, not more than 2,000 organisations who work hard and who work especially for their target group and who do real social good.”
Women’s organisations and small-scale organisations working with people with disabilities have been effective because they often have specific audiences and limited goals. Other NGOs in the country could learn from these groups, Khamatdinova said. “Most of our NGOs are experts in everything. They’re used to coming to round tables and conferences and reporting and discussing and criticising, always criticising, criticising, criticising. Now it’s time to change their position and help people who really need help.”
This particular effort is aiming high. “We don’t have any example or case here in which an NGO, through its efforts, has changed the system. And this project unites governmental bodies, NGOs, parliament members, journalists and lawyers to work together to create good changes in our society. It’s the first initiative that is uniting not for one action or a small campaign. This is the first union focusing on long-term reform for the whole society together.”