by Juliette Terzieff
- USA -
Petur spent much of his childhood scrambling on the streets of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, begging and doing odd jobs to afford the basic necessities. The 21-year old no longer worries about finding a place to sleep for the night, but lives in fear that his infant son may someday find himself in the same position.
“Things have not improved very much for me,” says Petur, who doesn’t want his full name used. “I have a job, sure, but the salary isn’t all that much more than I made as a child begging.”
“We could easily be on the street again,” Petur laments. “The only security we have is that every adult in our family is working age, so if one loses a job, somehow the others can pitch in until a new one comes along.”
Petur works from before sunrise until late afternoon at a small bakery, earning 200 Bulgarian Lev (about $140) a month, and returns home every evening to a 2-bedroom apartment that he, his wife, and 11-month old son share with 7 other extended family members. Petur has managed to build a life for himself against the odds, and credits the help of Sofia’s dilapidated children’s shelters for helping him through the worst days.
“When I lived on the street, most people just ignored me—only at the shelters was I able to find people who would not only feed me, but encourage me to keep trying. I was lucky,” he recalls.
Petur is one of millions of people, mostly women and children, across Eastern Europe and Central Asia who have yet to see post-Soviet era economic expansion translate into tangible gains.
Half the populations in five of the regions’ countries, including 18 million children under the age of 15, are living on less than $2 a day, and in some countries, such as Tajikistan and Albania, children are demonstrating stunted growth rates equal to the world’s least developed nations, according to new statistics released in April by the United Nations.
Poverty rates among children vary wildly from country to country. In Bosnia, the percentage hovers around 5 percent, while in Kyrgyzstan, 80 percent of children are living poor. Uzbekistan, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Tajikistan also have poverty rates of 50 percent or more for children.
“The region’s economic growth is not job-related and as a result, as the data shows, millions are being left behind,” says Mervyn Fletcher, a Switzerland-based Communication Officer for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.
The end of Soviet-era government-controlled economies brought about massive widespread restructuring and reform that saw millions of people lose their jobs as imports squeezed out local production, while prices increased and state welfare systems were gutted. Gigantic state-owned business were downsized, privatized and sold off to investors—the sales buffered government coffers through the worst of the post-Soviet transitions, but left former employees out in the cold.
Millions of adults left home, either for other cities or other countries, looking for better economic opportunities. Rising rates of alcohol and drug addiction also contributed to the rise in the number of neglected children.
Children have been left to fend for themselves—many ending up on the streets working odd jobs, collecting goods for recycling, begging or engaging in prostitution to survive, trafficked to other countries or placed in the region’s often bleak childcare institutions.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe believes 200,000 people a year, mostly children, are trafficked or sold out of Eastern Europe to work as domestic servants, in sweatshops, or to be sexually exploited. UNICEF estimates the global trade to be worth $12 billion a year. Few trafficking victims ever escape.
In every country across the region, except for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, the new UN data finds the number of infant children being placed in government-run institutions has risen since 1988 despite plummeting birth rates. The trend also extends to older children, with Kazakhstan and Ukraine demonstrating the most significant increases. Institutional conditions are grim and crippled by chronic inadequate budgets—some as low as a $1 dollar a day, with poorly trained staff and a lack of oversight.
Many of the countries have neither the infrastructure nor budget to monitor and implement changes to their battered systems. In most of the region, overall budget allotments for health and education have not increased since 1998, despite the economic recovery of the last decade.
UN officials have called for increased budget expenditures, better use of existing resources, and more generous help from the international community. A shift, from the widespread practice of placing children in institutions to helping families in crises, has also been repeatedly suggested by UN officials.
“Child poverty should be the number one concern of governments in the region,” UNICEF Regional Director Maria Calivis says. “The future of the region is inextricably bound to the well-being of children. If the true potential of all these countries is to be achieved, there must be adequate investment in services for children.”