In late 2007, my wife and I visited Kyrgyzstan’s only women’s penal colony to interview staff and inmates as part of a global research project on children of imprisoned mothers. Several of the mothers told us that they did not know where their children were. One woman’s 2- and 3-year-old had been left with a neighbour when she was taken into custody. At the trial, the neighbour stated that the Mayor’s Office had taken the children away, but the Mayor’s Office provided no notification to her, and she believed the neighbour had sold the children. Another woman’s child had been left with his grandmother, but she died when the boy was 13, and the imprisoned mother was only informed a year later – no one knew where the boy was.
This example reveals vulnerabilities and some of the challenges of policy-oriented research on child rights, families and relationships in the region. Like almost all the countries in the world, all 15 post-Soviet states have signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 9(4) of the Convention, states are obliged to provide information about the whereabouts of separated children. Of course, the Convention sets out a wide range of other rights – to healthcare, education, protection from violence and so on – that are often not upheld, particularly for vulnerable categories of children, such as those affected by conflict, with disabilities, from certain minority ethnic groups, or living in poverty.
In recent years, I have supported several UNICEF Country Offices in the region with analyses of the state of children’s rights. UNICEF’s role is ‘to build a world where the rights of every child are realised’. In addition to providing material assistance and advocacy work to encourage changes in government policy, a response to this type of situation requires policy-oriented research to reveal inequities, trends, particular vulnerabilities, and capacity gaps that cause obstacles to the realisation of children’s rights.
Research on children’s rights has to be holistic. It should look at the legal and policy framework, as well as the extent to which this framework is implemented on the ground. It must take into account social norms that may impede children's ability to enjoy their rights. Finally it requires buy-in by governments – if national partners are engaged in research processes, they are much more likely to proactively seek to effect change.
UNICEF does not work in post-Soviet countries specifically on the issue of children of imprisoned mothers. However, the policy-oriented research the agency has conducted in several countries has led to greater emphasis on partnership with government bodies to improve access to social services at community level, and to promote child-friendly approaches to law enforcement and justice. It also works with government ministries and statistical agencies to improve information management systems. Ideally, research should feed into efforts to develop capacity of state officials, including capacity to manage information. This should lead in turn to better understanding of the needs of the most vulnerable children for researchers and policy makers alike.
Matthew Naumann will be presenting an informal seminar on policy-oriented research on children’s rights in post-Soviet countries at CRFR on 18 February at 1pm. Please email Brenda Saetta (Brenda.firstname.lastname@example.org) to book a place.