In many countries, the 1st of June is celebrated as international children’s day. Over my years working to end the institutionalization of children, I have often come to wonder what that means. I would like to think it is the day on which we focus our attention on how far we have come in realizing children’s rights, in empowering children to find and use their voices, in learning as adults to listen and work in partnership with children and truly respect their opinions. But my experiences have taught me otherwise.
Frequently in institutions in Eastern Europe, I have asked children when their birthday was. In many institutions, one after another, the children replied “the 1st of June”. How could so many children have the same birthday, I wondered. Then a member of staff explained: “No, they don’t understand the question. There are too many of them for us to celebrate each of their real birthdays. So we celebrate all of them on the 1st of June”. I looked around the sea of shaved heads, identical clothing, emaciated bodies and hollowed eyes only to realize that every last vestige of their identity - what makes them individual, makes them special - had been taken from them. I was suddenly struck by what identity really means: a complex mixture of history shared with others, a sense of being special and different as an individual, whilst belonging powerfully to a group who have known you every day of your life. And how this was gone for children in institutions.
In the year 2000, together with UNICEF, I was researching the burgeoning process of ‘deinstitutionalization’ in Romania. Some counties had already closed institutions and the government was gearing up to develop a national strategy. I was asked to travel the country looking at the process of change - finding out what worked and what didn’t. The lessons I learned would form the basis of my model of ‘10 elements’ necessary to ensure that the deinstitutionalization process worked for all the children involved.
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