There have been a number of achievements for children since Ukraine achieved independence and the country’s economy began to improve. The infant mortality rate has been cut in half since 1991. In 2001, the country adopted its first national programme on prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. And as a result the rate of HIV transmission from mother to child was decreased from 27.8% (2001) to 6,3% (2008). In 2011 the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights office was established by the decree of the President of Ukraine.
But the transition from a centrally planned economy to a free market has also resulted in an increase in unemployment and social inequality, factors that severely affect children - especially since the disintegration of the state social protection system. The gap between rich and poor is widening and the unemployment rate is high, especially in rural areas. The situation has become very difficult for single parent households and two-parent families with more than one child.
Major Challenges for Children in Ukraine
In an attempt to reverse this negative trend, the government has started the reform of the social support system in Ukraine to assist better families and children in 2011.
Despite these efforts, major challenges stand in the way of the healthy development of the children of Ukraine.
Many children get an unhealthy start in life due to their parents’ lack of knowledge about early childhood care and development, an outdated health care system and unregulated advertising for breastmilk substitutes and other potentially harmful products. Only eighteen per cent of all mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively during the first six months. Every year 80 per cent of newborns are estimated to be unprotected against iodine deficiency disorders because of the lack of iodine in their mother’s diet during pregnancy and in their own diets in the early years of life. As children grow into adolescents they face new challenges to their health in the form of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and unprotected sex.
Ukraine is the country worst affected by HIV/AIDS in Europe. Ukraine has the highest adult HIV prevalence in all of Europe and Central Asia. Annual HIV diagnoses in Ukraine have more than doubled since 2001. 1.1 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV. Eighty per cent of them are young people. While the sharing of needles by injecting drug users is the leading cause of transmission, HIV is now spreading fast among the broader young population in general through unprotected sex. As a consequence increasing numbers of children are born with HIV. The number of infected pregnant women has increased two-fold in the last five years.
Most at risk adolescents are at the core of the HIV epidemic in Ukraine. Little attention has been paid to date to ensure their access to health and counselling services. In 2004, 29 children living on the street in Odessa were tested for HIV; twenty of them were found to be infected.
Care and treatment for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS is poor. Between 1995 and 2012, 32,504 children were born to HIV-positive mothers. Among them, 21,916 are HIV negative, 6,735 children under the age of 18 months are awaiting confirmation of their HIV status, while 2,814 are HIV-positive, 752 have AIDS and 287 children have died of AIDS.
Most HIV-positive children are born into socially disadvantaged and younger families, with 85 per cent of the parents under the age of 30. Ten per cent of HIV-positive mothers abandon their children to state-run orphanages. Insufficient knowledge about HIV/AIDS among the general population and care providers produces fear and stigmatisation of HIV-infected people, and leads to infringement of the rights of children living with HIV. There is considerable evidence of discrimination against HIV-infected children. Most often, they are not allowed to attend kindergartens or schools, and are neglected and isolated from other children.
Of Ukraine’s eight million children some 96,000 live in state-run children’s institutions such as orphanages, boarding schools and shelters. Family poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and drug use are the main reasons for children being abandoned. Thousands of children also choose to run away from violence in their homes. They find refuge on the streets where they run the risk of contracting tuberculosis and HIV through injecting drugs. Many children leave home because they have been left to fend for themselves while their parents have migrated abroad to find work.
A prevention-oriented juvenile justice system is yet to be established – consequently there are no special juvenile courts, especially trained judges, prosecutors or lawyers to handle children in conflict with the law. Instead most law offenders are sent to prisons from where there is little opportunity to reintegrate into society. Little attention is paid to the underlying social factors that lead juveniles into conflict with the law in the first place.
Ukraine is a source country for trafficking in human beings. While the precise scope of the problem is unknown, available data from the International Office of Migration indicates that a large number of victims of trafficking are young women and a smaller proportion are children from low income households who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour. Children who have been abandoned by their parents are especially at risk of falling prey to traffickers.