Save the Children Moves in to Help Children in Bulgaria - A Country in Crisis
A BRIEFING FOR JOURNALISTS
Thousands of children are malnourished, cold and living in appalling conditions as a result of the crisis in Bulgaria's economy. Soaring inflation and rising unemployment are forcing Bulgaria's families into desperate poverty.
Parents who cannot afford to buy enough food and fuel to feed and warm their children are faced with one terrible way out: many have already put their offspring into the hundreds of state orphanages, countless others will do so in the months ahead. These institutions, some well run, some dilapidated and dirty, are themselves facing a crisis as the government's ability to maintain them declines.
Recently, the European Union has provided some money to fund the basics in some of these institutions. It is also funded a programme to distribute a Special Social Assistance allowance of four instalments up to $7.80 a month to households on the Bulgarian government's needy list. Save the Children is of the firm belief that most of the time, the family is the best environment for the development of the child. Nevertheless in Bulgaria it is becoming increasingly harder for parents to keep their children with them in their impoverished homes when they know the children would be better fed in an institution.
Exact figures are hard to find, but thousands are already institutionalised, many abandoned and confused, some hungry, dirty and cold. But not all Bulgaria's families have given up: "Marina", a mother living in Bulgaria's second largest city to the north, Rousse, was advised to put her Down's Syndrome baby into an institution when he was born. (There are almost no community facilities for children with special needs). She was given no explanation or information about his condition.
Marina regularly visited her child in the institution, and was unhappy with what she saw. Despite the fact that her husband is himself physically disabled (a double amputee), she took the child home to look after him herself. When he first arrived he was thin, guarded his food as he ate and was moody. Slowly he filled out, relaxed and is now part of a happy family. They still have no information about Down's Syndrome, have learned to cope on their own and have no contact with other families in a similar situation.
The family live in an eighth floor flat which Marina's husband finds difficult to leave, living off her salary - equivalent to five US dollars a month and his pension of three US dollars a month. It is not easy, but they get by. They are the lucky ones.
Countless "orphans" in the institutions have relatives, but many of these children have physical or mental disabilities which make it even more difficult for their families to look after them. Bulgaria's response to these children up to now has been to institutionalise them.
Bulgaria's current government is made up largely of the Communists who ruled before the collapse of the eastern bloc. The Socialist government, elected in 1994, resigned in December, but, in accordance with the constitution, the president had to call on the Socialist party to form another government. In anticipation and fear of a new Socialist government, the opposition Union of Democratic Forces organised strikes which crippled the country. In the ensuing chaos Bulgaria's already ailing economy suffered, the budget was delayed and agreements with the International Monetary Fund postponed.
President Stoyanov, elected on a five year mandate in November 1996 and a member of the Union of Democratic Forces, chaired a meeting on February 4 where it was agreed that the newly formed socialist government would resign and an interim government would be formed by the president to prepare for elections in April. Intervention by the International Monetary Fund will be conditional on the radical reform of the economy, which will lead to more unemployment and more hardship for Bulgaria's children.
Ordinary people who long ago lost confidence in a government they see as corrupt and economically incompetent, are the real losers in all this. It is estimated that inflation will soon run at over 1,000 per cent a year, at least two in eight workers are unemployed and salaries remain low. At the beginning of February the minimum salary in Bulgaria was 5,500 leva while a kilo of cheese cost 5,100 leva. A doctors salary was 13,000 leva a month. Banks have collapsed and savings and pensions are worthless.
Heating bills have risen by more than 40 percent in recent months and people are asking to be cut off, in sub-zero temperatures, because they cannot afford to pay them. President Stoyanov has admitted that the choice for most of his citizens is between "heating and food". SAVE THE CHILDREN (SCF) has been working in Bulgaria since 1996. Recently SCF staff have travelled extensively in the country, assessing the needs of its children and finding out where the charity can use its limited resources most effectively.
It is early days, but in the short term SCF's work will focus on helping families stay together and supporting parents to keep children out of institutions. In the longer term the charity aims to help to change attitudes towards childcare in Bulgaria so future generations will not grow up away from their mothers and fathers, deprived of a family life.
In practical terms, this means the charity must make sure that conditions for families improve this year, and that next winter will not be as harsh as this one. Specific plans include: providing fuel to keep the heating going throughout the winter in schools and kindergartens, paying for children who have dropped out of kindergarten or school because their parents cannot afford the fees, and providing food coupons and even notebooks for children who cannot afford the most basic school equipment.
Other options include giving homes and schools equipment to grow their own food, attempting to counteract their ever decreasing spending power. At the same time the charity will start to work with the government and non-governmental organisations in Bulgaria to plan a whole country response to the emergency and help with strategic planning.
SCF will support the few day care facilities open to disabled children and look at ways to expand the number of places available, and to find out what else can be done to care for these children within their families.
NOTE TO EDITORS:
Save the Children's Emergency Liaison Officer, Peter Hawkins has recently returned from an assessment mission to Bulgaria. To arrange an interview, please contact Save the Children's press office.