Children living in poverty face many challenges, but for children with disabilities, life can be exceedingly difficult. Belarus, a small country in Eastern Europe, has a significant population of disabled people, including many children. Since 1993, ChildFund has worked to improve the quality of life for children in need across Belarus, including those affected by physical disabilities and learning difficulties.
Data from UNICEF suggests that there are fewer children with disabilities in Belarus now compared with previous decades, due in part to focused interventions by child development agencies and the Belarusian government. However, it is estimated that there are still more than 25,000 children living with disabilities in Belarus, and an additional 120,000 who are in desperate need of special education that can accommodate their needs.
The situation is worse in orphanages and institutions. The number of children living in these facilities has doubled since 1995, and according to UNICEF, approximately 35 percent of Belarus's almost 30,000 institutionalized children are living with some form of mental or physical disability. For many, these challenges prove too difficult to overcome, and their likelihood of attending a school that can meet their needs is greatly diminished.
One of the most problematic social aspects of child disability in Belarus is that many parents decide to homeschool their children out of fear that they will be ridiculed in a public school environment. Although this approach may be suitable in some cases, children isolated at home may miss out on crucial opportunities for social interaction and skills that will prepare them for later life. Other children are simply withdrawn from school altogether, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
In recent years, the Belarusian government has made inclusion of disabled children with disabilities a priority, but there is still much to do.
"Children with disabilities are the most vulnerable in society," Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF's regional director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said at a meeting in Geneva earlier this year. "We need to address the failure to register children with disabilities. They need to come into the child welfare and social protection systems, be recognized and not swept under the carpet."
In 2011, ChildFund launched a program called "Expanding Participation of People With Disabilities" with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Through this initiative, we have been able to reach out to families of children with special needs and provide them with training and resources to cope with the unique pressures of raising a child with disabilities in Belarusian society.
Through these training sessions, parents are empowered to face their challenges with greater confidence, and children have also been encouraged receive encouragement to overcome their social difficulties through dance and other creative outlets.
"Thanks to ChildFund, my daughter opened up and overcame her shyness," says the mother of Nastya, who participated in the program. "I look at the progress Nastya made during the last six months. Now, my daughter is looking forward to going to school. I am absolutely sure that she will find many friends at school."
Last year, ChildFund helped more than 4,000 people with disabilities and their families access a range of services, including specialized health care, educational opportunities and vocational training. We have also worked with the Belarusian government to spearhead support more than 120 advocacy initiatives to reduce the stigmatization of disabilities in the country. To maintain this momentum, we need your help.
One of the best ways to help us end discrimination against children with disabilities in Belarus is by making a donation to our Children's Greatest Needs fund. Your support and generosity will enable us to reach even more children and give them the support they need to live happier, healthier lives.