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Ukraine: Recovery Conference Could Be Lifeline for Children

Support the Rights To Quality Education; to Live in a Family Setting

School No. 62, Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 27, 2022. The school was subjected to repeated Russian attacks in February, March, and April 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch
  • The Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin should prioritize donor support to rebuild and make accessible thousands of damaged schools and ensure children and teachers have access to equipment and technology for distance learning.
  • Ukraine still relies on the Soviet-era legacy of institutionalizing children deemed to have disabilities or to be from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Donors need to encourage Ukraine to maintain progress in moving children who live in institutions into family-type settings and mainstream education, and to provide resources for this.

(Berlin, June 7, 2024) – Foreign governments should use the June 11-12, 2024 Ukraine Recovery Conference to secure resources to protect and fulfill children’s rights, Human Rights Watch and the Ukraine Child Rights Network said today. These should include safe access to quality education and the right to live in families rather than in harmful institutional settings. The conference aims to generate government aid and private-sector investment for “recovery, reconstruction, reform, and modernization” in Ukraine.

In the midst of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian authorities have pledged to carry out education reforms intended to keep children learning safely, and also initiated a new strategy to end the harmful, Soviet-era legacy of institutionalizing children deemed to have disabilities or to be from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Human Rights Watch research found the needs are vast and that continued international support may be critical for success.

“A better future for Ukraine means taking the steps needed for every child to realize their potential, and there should be no backsliding in Berlin,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Getting an education and living in a family rather than an institution are not nice-to-haves, but are a child’s fundamental rights, and they deserve full donor support.”

Human Rights Watch has documented vast damage and destruction to Ukrainian schools and preschools from attacks, as well as from Russian forces that occupied, pillaged, and trashed schools during the first months of the fighting. In some cases, Russian forces fired on the schools they had used as they withdrew from areas they had occupied, further damaging them.

As of May, more than 3,790 educational facilities had been damaged or destroyed, according to Ukrainian government figures.

The damage to schools and risks to students led Ukraine to shift back to distance learning, just as students were returning to in-person learning after the Covid-19 pandemic. However, many parents and children lack the devices and connectivity needed for distance learning, Human Rights Watch found, which moreover may not be accessible for children with disabilities. Ukrainian authorities also require schools to have adequate bomb shelters to resume in-person education.

At the Berlin conference, Ukraine’s international partners and donors should help the authorities ensure access to quality education for all children, including by restoring damaged educational facilities across Ukraine, in line with safety requirements and strict adherence to accessibility standards mandatory under Ukrainian law. Donor funding should support the development of inclusive rather than segregated education, the groups said.

The full-scale invasion also exacerbated the risks to 105,000 children in institutions in Ukraine, including family separation, neglect, and forcible transfer and deportation by Russian and occupation authorities. Before the invasion, a large majority of children in institutions had parents with full parental rights, but children with disabilities were more often institutionalized instead being able to live with their families or in the community and attend mainstream schools.

But even in peacetime, decades of studies have shown that institutionalization is harmful to children. Warehousing children in institutions is prohibited by international human rights law as well as within the European Union, which Ukraine seeks to join.

Separately from the Berlin conference, the European Union recently approved the Ukrainian government’s reconstruction plan, which unlocks 50 billion euro in EU funding. It includes plans for education reform and the construction of 700 large foster-family-style homes for 5,600 children who had been living in institutions. Ukraine also created a detailed roadmap to deinstitutionalization. The EU and Ukraine should continue to prioritize deinstitutionalization and care reform as part of Ukraine’s reconstruction and EU integration.

Under previous governments, several efforts at reforming systems for caring for children with disabilities had failed, as civil society groups were marginalized and reform plans were undermined to exclude children with disabilities. Donors should continue to work closely with Ukrainian civil society groups that are leading the effort for meaningful reforms that ensure all children’s access to protection and education, and their rights to live in a family and in a community, Human Rights Watch and the Ukraine Child Rights Network said.

“Ukraine’s recovery needs to prioritize children’s rights, especially education, over rebuilding institutional care facilities and special schools’ segregation practices,” said Daria Kasyanova, Ukrainian Child Rights Network board chair. “Deinstitutionalization reform is crucial, it means placing human and children's rights at the forefront.”

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