Uzbekistan: Orphanages disbanded under the state’s watchful eye
The president has appointed the National Guard as a “spiritual protector” of orphans.
Locals in Satkak, just outside the city of Fergana, call the street where the new foster home is situated “the street of the Valiyevs,” for the family that cares for the children there.
The five new arrivals at Ziyeda Valiyeva’s house were all released from the troubled Margilan state children’s home, one of a number of intuitions across Uzbekistan that has been dissolved since a presidential decree overhauling the system of care for orphans and abandoned children entered force last year.
For Valiyeva, who already had four of her own children, adopting the quintet – three boys and two girls – was the fulfillment of a old dream.
“I worked in the education system for a long time, and I often visited the state homes. My heart would break every time,” Valiyeva told Eurasianet during an interview in her spacious home.
“Now, thanks to the support of my husband and children, we have become a big international family.”
The shift from state facilities to smaller foster homes has been long-awaited.
The larger, Soviet-built institutions, which typically housed more than a hundred children each, are associated with misery, abuse and blighted futures.
Calls to overhaul childcare for orphans and abandoned children increased after the 2018 trial and conviction of a deputy director of the Margilan state children’s home on charges of sexually abusing a young resident.
Among the famous Uzbek sons who spent time in residential care was the country’s hardline founding president, Islam Karimov.
That Uzbekistan’s present authoritarian leadership considers the issue one of national security was made clear by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s decision to assign the National Guard to oversee the transfer of institutionalized children into foster homes.
Guardsmen will be “spiritual protectors” of the children over the course of their upbringing and through their journey into working life, Mirziyoyev pledged last July, a month before signing the decree.
Work with disadvantaged children is the latest string on the bow of the security organ, whose functions were expanded at the expense of the long-feared national security service in a shakeup that began under Mirziyoyev in 2017.
The guardsmen make more than monthly check-ins on the new homes, the Valiyevs told Eurasianet. Foster homes are allocated around $220 per child per month from the state along with a coat, a pair of boots, a pair of sneakers and school uniform.
The pace at which the presidential decree is being fulfilled has given rise to questions about the vetting process for foster families, and whether some families might be joining the scheme for mercenary reasons.
Already four of Uzbekistan’s 12 provinces and the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan have seen disbanded all state homes catering for children from age seven up to adulthood.
For the government, the institutional homes were costly to maintain, with some of them operating in old, dilapidated buildings.
The United Nations children’s organization, UNICEF, is an enthusiastic proponent of the deinstitutionalization drive.
UNICEF said last year that 250 out of every 100,000 Uzbek children are in some form of institutional care – almost double the global average.
However, “the reintegration process must be well planned, and children and their families must be supported throughout the process,” UNICEF said after Mirziyoyev’s 2021 decree.
The Valiyevs’ home is one of 16 new foster homes in the Fergana region.
Khurshida Khakimova, a childcare specialist in the local government, told Eurasianet that “no troubling incidents” have been reported at the foster homes.
That view is reinforced by Shermukhammad Dekhkonov, a graduate of the Margilan state children’s home, who is now a student in Tashkent and an activist for children.
He is the administrator of a Telegram channel “House of Mercy,” which has emerged as a space for discussing issues facing orphans and abandoned children.
The channel has around 200 participants, including representatives of the National Guard, child psychologists and former residents of state children’s homes.
“I often visit the foster homes that have opened in the Fergana region,” said Dekhkonov, whose parents died when he was three.
“I know many orphans personally and I can say that these are much warmer places for them to live. Some have already learned those sacred words ‘Mom and Dad.’ The authorities’ attention to this matter is something that did not exist in the past,” he told Eurasianet.
Valiyeva indicated that all her foster children experienced some form of trauma in the Margilan state home.
Now they go to school together with her biological children, and pitch in with housework. The oldest of the five, 13-year-old Leila, bakes the household’s best samsa, Uzbekistan's famous meat and pastry buns.
“My parents left me [at an orphanage] and it wasn’t until today that I found out what the love of a mother means,” she told Eurasianet as she watched over her foster brothers playing chess.
Valiyeva’s husband Nabizhon Valiyev, an IT specialist, said that initial challenges settling in the new children were outweighed by the joys of observing their development.
The three boys aged between nine and eleven are keen on sport, he said, and have already decided what they want to do with their lives.
“They want to work as police investigators. Probably this is due to the big impression that the national guardsmen have left on them,” Valiyev said.
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