13 Oct 98

UNICEF Urges Russia to Spend More on Children

MOSCOW, Oct 13 (Reuters) - UNICEF, the United Nations' children's fund, urged Russia on Tuesday to spend more on social programmes to shield its 37 million children from the effects of its deep economic crisis.

"The economic crisis threatens the welfare of children. Russian children must be protected as much as possible from the effects of the current economic crisis," UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy told a news conference.

"With the financial crisis deepening the impact on families and children is even worse -- children are dropping out of school, going onto the streets, getting involved in crime and drugs," she added.

More and more children are fleeing families where at least one parents is an alcoholic. The number of homeless street children in Moscow alone has reached 150,000 in a city of about 10 million, Bellamy added.

Youth sentencing rates have almost doubled from 762 per 100,000 population in 1996 to 1,356 in 1996, while the total crime rate for the same period rose at a slower pace from 1,100 to 1,780 per 100,000, a UNICEF report showed.

Russia has seen a big rise in teenage mortality, mostly due to so-called external causes which include accidents, murder and suicide. Suicide and murder rates have doubled for boys.

"Already fragile safety nets for education, health and social protection are starting to be torn up. They must not be allowed to fail, leaving vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves," she added.

Russia's once strong education system has gone into serious decline since the fall of the communist regime, she said. School drop-out rates have risen alarmingly as some teachers are not regularly paid and frequently go on strike themselves.

Cash-strapped children's institutions are increasingly incapable of providing proper care for children and UNICEF has launched programmes to move them into foster families away from the institutions, said Bellamy.

UNICEF has also reported a rising incidence of HIV and AIDS infection among Russia's young as a result of drug abuse.

More than two-thirds of Russian children suffer from iodine deficiency-related health disorders and poverty has deprived many children of vital vitamins.

"The burden cannot fall on the social development side of the budget, just focusing on economic and political reforms and not taking into account the impact on social protection. You are only going to experience short-term gains," Bellamy said.

UNICEF raised $1 million to fund its Russian programmes this year, its Russia representative Gianni Murzi said.

International humanitarian orgnisations have regularly urged Russia's big companies and banks to contribute to such charitable initiatives but with less than satisfactory results.

Now even relatively successful sectors of the Russian economy are struggling to survive the financial crisis that has seen the rouble lose more than half its value as prices soar and jobs are shed.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.

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