Vol. 3, No. 15 (August 01, 2010)

Child protection in post-Soviet Azerbaijan: Obstacles to the implementation of state policy on de-institutionalization and alternative care

Aytakin Huseynli

Head of country office in Azerbaijan 
Hilfswerk Austria International


National Advisor on Social Work 
UNICEF office in Azerbaijan

Targeting children and youth in human capital development and creating employment opportunities for this vast segment of Azerbaijani population will help the country make use of one of their most important resources for equitable development and economic growth.  And there is ample evidence that even limited investments promote better health and education outcomes for children, bringing considerable future benefits to society as a whole.  One dollar spent on children immunization save 10 USD in later medical care, 1 USD on comprehensive parental care for women saves 3.38 USD in later health costs and 1 USD for quality preschool education saves 4.75 USD in later special education, crime, welfare and other costs.  

Finding effective strategies to reform child protection is on the agenda for many countries of the former Soviet bloc.  Azerbaijan is one of them and has begun moves in this area by working to reduce the number of children held in residential child care institutions.  At present, there are approximately 10,000 such children in institutions averaging 200 to 350 children each.  Given that children under 18 form 35 percent of Azerbaijan’s population, such a high rate of orphaned and vulnerable children in such institutions is a particular cause for concern.  In Azerbaijan like in all post-Soviet countries, care for orphaned, abandoned children and children with disabilities was traditionally provided exclusively by the state, and the national child welfare system was characterized by large residential child care institutions (Gross, 2009). 

Those children placed in institutional care are often deprived of basic care and support and are exposed to harsh living conditions and disciplining practices (Burke, 1995).  That in turn often leads to severe developmental setbacks and poor health outcomes.  The situation in Azerbaijan in this regard is all the more worrying because like other post-Soviet countries, it has not been able to improve conditions to the level international organizations recommend.  Many of its orphanages do not yet have individual care and development plans for each child and do not conduct periodic review of their placement, family status and general wellbeing of a child in institution.  Moreover, many of the children in residential care have fewer opportunities for education and development.  And at present, the residential care system is not monitored systematically in order to ensure that the children’s rights are protected (Schmidt, 2009). 

But the picture is not without hope.  Azerbaijan has launched a series of reforms in this area, although many of them are constrained by economic and political conditions.  Despite these challenges, the Azerbaijani authorities have clearly recognized the detrimental effects of institutionalization on children, and are taking steps to reform its institutional care system.  In 2006, for example, the Government of the Azerbaijan Republic endorsed the State Program on De-Institutionalization and Alternative Care for 2006-2015 that is aimed at the reintegration of children residing currently in various state institutions with biological or foster families and at creation of alternative care services to support the de-institutionalization process. 

The adoption of this State Program was a milestone in the child welfare reform process.  Its major focus is to reduce the number of children in institutional care and to establish a sustainable system of alternative child and family support.  At present, the state institutions are the only place where the children from vulnerable families are placed.  The main stakeholders in the reform process are the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, Ministry of Health, the Commission on Minors Rights Protection, the Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs, as well as UNICEF.  In addition, national and international civil society organizations such as Hilfswerk Austria International, Save the Children, United Aid for Azerbaijan, SOS Kinderdorf International, Center for Innovation in Education, Mental Health Initiative, and the National NGO Alliance for Child Rights also play a role.

To date, de-institutionalization has been slow in part because of several obstacles that were not foreseen when the Program was adopted and that continue to represent serious challenges to meeting program goals.  According to the international standards of UNICEF on child protection reform, generally areas such as economic and development policies, education policies, health policies, child-care policies, social welfare policies, criminal law, trade provisions, labor organization, media regulation, emergency legislation in conflict situations, immigration and taxation have potential concern with regard to child protection.  In Azerbaijan, all these areas require significant change.  

The key problem, which lies behind all of the others, involves the culture of childcare provision and child raising in Azerbaijan.  Many Azerbaijanis still believe that “children [are] the property of their parents, whose duty is to ensure their survival, and are not entitled to any rights” (Ducci, 2003).  A study conducted by the Hilfswerk Austria International in Azerbaijan among 226 adults in 2010 found that few know about the rights of children beyond the right to education (66.2%), and 72.7 percent identified “beating” as the only kind of violence against children they needed to be concerned about (Hilfswerk Austria International, 2010).  Such attitudes lead many Azerbaijanis to view placement of children in residential child care institutions as entirely normal, despite international legal norms (United Nations, 1989).  And at the same time, the Azerbaijani political and administrative elite tend to view children as objects for protection rather than as people who have rights, yet another legacy of the communist period.  And many in the elite do not yet grasp the whole concept of de-institutionalization process (Sotiropoulou and Sotiropoulous, 2007). 

A study conducted by UNICEF and Azerbaijani Ministry of Education in 2008 in 55 state run residential child care institutions found out that 47.1 percent of children in them come there because of poverty, with 24.2 percent more institutionalized because of poor living conditions at home and 19 percent due to unemployment of parents due to diseases (19.6%) (Ministry of Education, 2009).  Thus, nearly three out of four of the institutionalized children were there not for the reasons typically found elsewhere but because of poverty.  Clearly, these figures suggest that Azerbaijan needs immediate supplemental social welfare policies such as nutrition, housing, school support, medical aid and income generation. 

The absence of such solid social policies restricts the support that government provides to families and especially children.  However, many in Azerbaijan view such social welfare programs as charity.  In 2004, a World Bank report described the current social-protection system as inappropriate for the market-oriented economy toward which Azerbaijan is striving.  Among the major shortcomings are the absence of any coverage for large groups of people and the inadequate level of benefits in some regions; a growing disparity between a shrinking wage base and the demands placed on the system; and the failure to target the neediest recipients.  The system's inefficiency is exacerbated by its fragmentation.  As in the Soviet period, allowances and benefits are only social services that exist and are administered and financed by diverse agencies, including four extra-budgetary funds, several ministries, centralized, bureaucratic and the lower levels of government (Lewis, et al., 2004).  

A second difficulty in the process of de-institutionalization is the absence of educational and development programs for children with disabilities who constitute big percentage of institutionalized children.  At present, 30.1% of children in institutions are there because of special education needs (Ministry of Education, 2009).  Even though there are 52,000 children registered with disabilities, most do not attend school as regular schools are simply incapable of accommodating them.  The main obstacle here is also lack of understanding of the concept of inclusive education among civil servants and the general population.  This exclusionary system does not provide for socialization and the most of schools do not have special classes, equipment, skilled teachers and teacher assistants.  In addition to lack of educational opportunity for children with disabilities, there are also few services such as rehabilitation and day care centers, support for parents or main caregivers of children with disabilities. 

A third set of problems which prevents the Program on de-institutionalization from smooth implementation is lack of universal child care policies and programs, as well as absence of child care services, especially community-based services such as day care centers, rehabilitation centers, family support centers, and similar facilities.  Indeed, programs which promote parenting/parenthood which is crucial for the country like Azerbaijan, do not exist at all.  Mostly due to the absence of these kind of important child care services families place their children to institutions during crisis. 

In order to assure an effective implementation of the de-institutionalization process, the government of the Azerbaijan Republic should take immediate steps to establish new services and improve existing services.  Most importantly, awareness on children rights and child development should be raised and more attention should be paid to the world of children and adolescents.  Powers and instruments should be developed and refined, enthusiastic and professional educators should be trained and society’s vision of “planet childhood” should be changed completely. 

Since poverty is a leading issue for institutionalization of children and separation from  their biological families, the government should aim at reintegrating institutionalized “social orphans” with their impoverished families and should provide these children and their families or caregivers with economic and employment opportunities.  In addition, some immediate social welfare measures such as national supplemental nutrition assistance, school lunch, social housing and medical assistance programs should be developed and introduced which may enable families (biological or extended) to take children back from institutions and prevent further institutionalization. 

The government should also put more efforts on realization of inclusive education program and raise awareness at all levels on the importance of inclusive education.  In addition, the government jointly with national and international agencies should advocate for changes in infrastructure such as schools, public buildings, public transportations and work places in order to make them friendly use and accessible for children with disabilities and make them visible in the society.  And child care services and programs should be developed immediately in order to prevent institutionalization of children and support families when they are in crises. 


Burke, Mary Anne (1995) “Child Institutionalization and Child Protection in Central and Eastern Europe”, Innocenti Occasional Papers, Economic Policy Series, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Ducci, Valerio (2003) “Beyond the Orphanage: the Process of Deinstitutionalizing Children in Italy: Post-War Developments”, in UNICEF (2003) Children in Institutions: The Beginning of the End, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (Tipografia Giuntina: Florence, Italy), pp. 1-24. 

Gross, Rebecca (2009) Return to Investment in Child Welfare Reform: the CEE/CIS Region, KSC Research Series (USAID: Washington, DC), April 10.
Hilfswerk Austria International (2010) Report on Needs Assessment of Vulnerable Children in Azizbeyov Rayon in Azerbaijan, Hilfswerk Austria International. 

Lewis, O., et al. (2004) “Progress Report on the Development of Child Abuse Prevention, Identification, and Treatment Systems in Eastern Europe”, Child Abuse & Neglect, 28(1), January, pp. 93-111.

Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan Republic (2009) Report on the Initial Assessment of Public Childcare Institutions in Azerbaijan, available at http://www.edu.gov.az/view.php?lang=az&menu=83&id=1379 (accessed 25 July 2010).

Schmidt, Victoria (2009) “Orphan Care in Russia”, Social Work & Society, Vol. 7, Issue 1.

Sotiropoulou, Vassiliki and Dimitri Sotiropoulos (2007) “Child Care in Post-Communist Welfare States: The Case of Bulgaria”, International Social Policy, Vol. 36, Issue 1, pp. 141-155.