Social Orphans in Belarus: Alcohol Takes Its Toll
The number of cases of parents being deprived of their parental rights in Belarus is very high compared to other European countries.
On the whole, Belarus brings up more than 25,000 boys and girls in children's institutions of various types. That is about 1.4 per cent of all children, or every 70th child in Belarus.
Every year state authorities send to children’s institutions about 4,000 of children deprived of parental care. True orphans make up a small fraction of the total number.
Deprivation of parental rights because of alcohol abuse is one the most common reason for this.
Childhood’s Cruel Rival
In an absolute majority of cases when children are sent to orphanages, their parents, or at least one of them, are alive. But at some point they found their small offsprings to be an unbearable burden, an obstacle to an easy life, or simply forgot about their existence. Whatever the wording, too often children lose out in the competition with vodka for the adults’ hearts.
According to the World Health Organisation, Belarus is in the top 10 countries for alcohol consumption. More than 10 per cent of the entire population abuse it.
Alcohol-addicted people rarely refuse children themselves. Usually, state officials come and take the unfortunate small human beings away.
The state deprives unaccomplished parents of parents’ rights. For a child, the immediate result of such a change is usually the same: being placed in an orphanage.
Belarusian state authorities use a broad term with regard to children with living parents who are deprived of their care: “social orphans”. In fact, that usually means “victims of the nation’s alcoholisation”.
Depending on the type of orphanage, it can host from between 20 and 100 children. The children receive medical care, special education if needed, and nice toys.
Yet the consequences of upbringing in an orphanage are doleful. Developmental delays and physical stunting are common. Only about 10 per cent of orphanage graduates settle well in their future life. Violence, drugs, and, again, alcohol and abandoned children are far more common among orphanage graduates than among other youth.
This can hardly be blamed on the orphanages’ staff. They are simply unable to provide children with decent socialisation skills and, even more importantly, with parental love.
For the state authorities, the detrimental results of upbringing in orphanages are clear enough. They are now making efforts to put children into alternative forms of family care instead.
Professional families, family-style children's homes, and patronage are relatively new institutions for Belarus, but they are gaining popularity and increasing in number.
In order to prove the success of alternative forms of family care, the state media like to point to the decrease in the number of orphanages in the country.
Compared to 2005, the number of children in orphanages has declined twofold. But one should be very careful with such statistics: during this time, the number of children has also decreased in Belarus by 30 per cent because of demographic trends.
Thanks to these positive changes, children can live in an environment much closer to what they would get in a family. Still, the alternative family forms are not real ones.
Red Light for Foreign Adopters
Adoption gives a second chance for both real and social orphans. Being adopted as babies, children may never know that their parents are not their biological ones. Even if they learn this later, they will have already received parental love, which is of crucial importance for the formation of a person.
On the one hand, the statistics on adoption reveal progress: while in 2006 Belarusians adopted only 337 children, in 2011 this number was already 510. On the other hand, Belarus has drastically minimised the possibilities for international adoption.
For years, adoption by a foreign family loomed among the brightest wishes of small Belarusian orphans. The practise used to be quite popular and the number of cases of such polar shifts in children’s lives could exceed 700 a year (in 2003).
Not taking into account children’s interests, the state has decided their fortune in another way. In 2006, the Belarusian Parliament amended the Code of Marriage and Family's provisions on international adoption. Foreigners became able to adopt a Belarusian child only if state authorities found his or her adoption within Belarus impossible.
Of all foreigners (excluding Russians), only Italians can adopt Belarusian children, following a simplified procedure. Belarus and Italy have launched an effective cooperation on adoption issues which includes monitoring the life of adoptees abroad.
Foreign adoption cases have decreased almost five times, together with children's chances for a proper life.
Reasons for State Concern
The state can provide good arguments supporting its position with regard to foreign adoption. In 2004, Lukashenka claimed adoption of Belarusian children by foreigners was Belarus’ shame. A year later, the state claimed that international adoption was one means for trafficking of people.
The culmination came in September 2006 when an Italian couple refused to return a Belarusian orphan – Vika Moroz – to Belarus after she had spent a summer in Italy. The Italians claimed that at her orphanage in Belarus the small girl suffered from physical and moral violence. They hid the girl for 20 days. Finally, Italian police found Vika in a monastery and returned her to Belarus.
News from Russia exaggerated the tension. Exceptionally violent treatment of about 18 Russian children adopted by foreigners got significant attention in Russian media outlets which are popular in Belarus. The cases enforced the negative attitude of state officials towards international adoption. Even more, it helped the tough state policy to get ordinary Belarusians’ support.
The state had its reasons for limiting international adoption. But it is impossible to agree with Lukashenka that adoption of Belarus by foreign citizens is Belarus’ shame. The need for international adoption is only a consequence of a real cause for Belarus’ shame: the alcoholisation of the rapidly declining population.
Belarus: The Land of Broken Marriages
According to The Economist, Belarus occupies the fourth highest place in the world for divorce, behind South Korea, Russia and Aruba.
The Belarusian Statistics Agency has recently published fresh data on marriages and divorces in Belarus. It also suggests the growing unpopularity of traditional family lifestyles among Belarusians.
At the same time, marriages to foreigners are becoming increasingly commonplace. Many Belarusians, particularly women, deliberately look for foreigners who can marry them and take them away from Belarus. Weddings with Russians and Ukrainians happen most often. Germans, Israelis, Turks and Balts also feature highly among Belarusians' preferred partners. Of course, not many of them know Belarus' ranking on divorce.
Is Marriage Becoming Less Popular?
In the last decade, the number of marriages in Belarus has fluctuated. But as the table below shows, since independence Belarusians have become less inclined to marry. The marriage statistics in 2010 basically returned to the post-World War II level, when the population suffered a huge demographic blow.
The year 2012 once again saw a decrease. Between January and October the number of newly established families dropped by 10 per cent. 66,000 marriages were registered in this period. This equals about 7.5 marriages per 1,000 citizens.
In the Eastern European context, Belarus places somewhere between its CIS and EU neighbours. For example, the Russians and Ukrainians have higher marriage rates: 8.5 per 1,000 and 7.8 per 1,000 respectively.
And the Poles (6.0 marriages per 1,000 citizens), Latvians (4.2) and Lithuanians (5.7) stay out of wedlock more often than the Belarusians.
The declining trend is similar across the whole of Eastern Europe. However, in the CIS countries marriage numbers still remain higher.
World Leader in Divorce Rates
Marriage is just one step which couples take in the direction of a happy family life. But the really big thing has to do with sustaining the relationship. Here the Belarusians seem to have serious difficulties.
Belarus is a world leader in terms of the divorce rate. According to the World in Figures 2013, published by the Economist, the country ranks number 4 worldwide.
Unlike the marriage rate, the divorce rate has stayed generally even throughout the years of sovereignty. Around 35,000 families break apart every year. In January-October of this year the Belarusian Statistics Agency reports 4.2 divorces per 1,000 citizens. It is higher than in all neighbouring states but Russia.
Interestingly, high numbers of divorces were also registered in Belarus back in the 1980s and 1990s. But because of the falling marriage statistics of the recent decade the ratio of marriages to divorces is growing. Today it is roughly 2 to 1.
It’s the Economy, Stupid?
The marriage and divorce trends in Belarus generally correspond to global trends. A 2008 study by the University of Pennsylvania found a worldwide increase in the divorce rate and a decrease in the marriage rate after World War II.
The US scholars explain the findings by the fact that the technological progress of the last 60 years makes it easier for singles to maintain their own home.
Marrying at a later age is another worldwide trend which is also typical of present day Belarus. However, Belarusians still enter into family relations at a younger age than, for example, Western Europeans and Americans. On average, women in Belarus get married at the age of 24.5 years and men at the age of 26.6 years. The table below puts this into the international context.
A number of factors can explain these statistics. Traditions and societal pressure on women to get married early is definitely a reason in Belarus. Another lies in the economic realm.
Several studies have shown that couples in poor countries tend to marry earlier than in countries with high level of wellbeing. It simply makes financial sense, as combining life expenses with someone else saves money.
And that’s often the case in Belarus. Young couples first move in together and later many of them upgrade their relationships to a formal level.
Interestingly, divorce rate can also have an economic dimension. According to the Economist, economic downturns normally cause an increase in separations, especially in better-off families. Crises undermine income and make families cut down on their consumption. Quite often partners tend to blame falling living standards not on governments but rather on each other.
This could well be the case in many families in Belarus, because in recent years income instability has become a widespread phenomenon in the Belarusian economy.
Moreover, some Belarusian families divorce out of pragmatic calculations. This helps them to secure benefits from legislation. For instance, in certain cases separated singles who have children have the right to better housing conditions. Or if one of the former spouses is a pensioner, his or her son can escape mandatory military service.
Welcome to Belarus: the Brides are Waiting
The unstable economy affects the marital choices of Belarusians in one more way. It is reflected in the increase of marriages with foreigners. Belarusians simply seek to leave their motherland by marrying nationals of other countries. Since 2000, the annual number of such marriages has more than doubled. Today, it makes up to 6-7 per cent of all the registered marriages in the country.
This looks quite high given the fact that Belarus has high visa and language barriers. The majority of marriages are with citizens of Russia and Ukraine who have no visa or language problems in Belarus. Russians alone account for 25-30 per cent of all cases.
Other countries that feature highly among the marital preferences of the Belarusians include the Baltic States, Israel, Germany and Turkey.
Marriages with aliens are more widespread among Belarusian women. For some, marrying a foreigner is a life-long ambition. They dream of a rich alien who can take them away from Belarus and provide a high standard of living.
No surprise that foreigners enjoy particular popularity among local women at pubs and night clubs in Belarus. And no surprise, therefore, that inbound sex tourism has been on the rise in the country in recent years.
Thus, the statistics on marriages and divorces give us a telling picture of Belarusian society and economy. In the regional context, this picture is not the gloomiest one. But it still looks alarming.