Yerevan, 18 May 2015
Good afternoon and thank you for coming.
I would like to thank the Government of the Republic of Armenia for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from 12 to 18 May 2015. In the course of the visit, I met with high-level Government officials at central, marz and municipal levels, members of the police, office of the prosecutor and the judiciary, members of the legislative, the office of the ombudsperson, lawyers, representatives of telecommunications operators, non-governmental organizations working on child protection issues, and children themselves. I also visited a child support centre, two boarding schools, an institution for children with disabilities, and a reception centre for refugees, asylum-seekers and other displaced persons. I travelled to the Lori and Shirak provinces to hold meetings in Vanadzor and Gyumri.
I am grateful to the Government for the collaboration before and during the visit. To everyone who met with me, I want to express my gratitude for their hospitality and readiness to engage in an open and constructive dialogue to improve the situation of children in Armenia. I also wish to express my gratitude to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the United Nations Office in Armenia, and to UNICEF Armenia for their support and assistance.
The objective of my visit was to assess on the ground the situation of sale and sexual exploitation of children in Armenia and its national child protection system, including law enforcement, in order to make recommendations to prevent that children fall victims to prostitution, online sexual abuse and other forms of sexual exploitation, child marriage and illegal adoption.
Scope of the sale and sexual exploitation of children and risk factors
During my visit almost all of my interlocutors have conveyed a recurring message of deep love of the Armenian society for its children, and of the protective character of Armenian traditions and family values towards children. The Armenian social fabric, based on the common endurance of historical suffering, has created a strong feeling of collective responsibility towards children, where there would be no room for child abuse to go undetected.
Indeed, data shared by the police and the office of the prosecutor reflect this common discourse, that is, the number of investigated, prosecuted and convicted cases for the offences of child prostitution and child pornography is relatively low compared to other countries with similar size of population. However, at the same time, all my interlocutors have acknowledged that there are gaps in terms of awareness-raising, detection and reporting mechanisms of cases of abuse and violence, including sexual violence, against children.
It is widely acknowledged that child marriage continues to be frequent among the Yezidi minority and in rural communities. Even though Armenia adopted legislative reforms to increase the age of consent for women to 18 years, the current legislation still allows for exceptions. Consequently, I urge relevant authorities in Armenia to adopt the necessary legislative reform, to conduct awareness raising campaigns among the Yezidi community, with the active involvement of the leaders of the local communities, to prevent child marriages from happening, and to promote access to education and life skills for girls and boys.
Irregularities committed in adoption processes, which can amount to sale of children for the purpose of illegal adoption, continue to be a major concern in the country. I salute the engagement of the Government and the National Assembly in the current legislative reform process, and urge them to speed it up in order to meet international norms and standards on the subject, including the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption. Adoption processes must be governed by the best interest of the child, and not of the prospective adoptive parents. Adoption, in particular inter-country adoption, should be a last resort. In this respect, I commend efforts made by the Government to reduce the number of inter-country adoptions since 2010, and encourage it to continue in the path of favouring alternative care and family support.
Another issue of concern for my mandate is the sexually exploitative behaviour against children which can be facilitated by the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). In the last years, Armenia has benefited from the rich opportunities offered by new technologies, with a fast-increasing internet penetration rate of 80%. As everywhere else, children are leading this digital revolution, while parents and carers are struggling to keep up with their pace. The main Telecommunications Operators in the country have launched various awareness raising activities to encourage safe internet usage. Some of them offer services to reduce, detect and report risks associated with internet usage by children. While I commend the business sector for these prevention initiatives as part of their corporate social responsibility, I encourage the Government to lead and coordinate these efforts in order to increase their effectiveness and reach as many children as possible. In particular, I call on the government to work in partnership with the ICT companies, schools and NGOs in digital education campaigns, not only targeted at children, but also at parents and carers.
The socio-economic hardship that the country is facing in the past years has resulted in an increase of poverty, labour migration and weakening of families. During my visit to boarding institutions I have encountered many children who have been placed therein by their parents due to their lack of means and resources to take care of their children. I also heard of some cases of children that where pushed to engage in prostitution or to beg on the streets to provide for their families. It is important that the Government shift its focus from institutionalization towards care in family environment and community based services, through family support packages that go beyond financial assistance, ensuring access to quality education, and providing life skills and options to boys and girls.
Despite the hardships, Armenia is attesting its generosity with refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons, especially of Armenian ethnic origin, fleeing from ongoing conflicts, in particular the conflict in Syria. Bearing in mind latest developments in the Syrian conflict, it is likely that the wave of civilians fleeing the war will increase. I therefore call on international donors to support efforts by the Armenian authorities in this regard, by providing an ad hoc reception centre, with adequate staff and services, in accordance with international standards, with special provisions for unaccompanied and separated children in the form of alternative care, as well as integration plans.
A call for an effective and child-centred protection system
In relation to the institutional child protection framework, the relatively recent three-tier system has shown weaknesses and gaps that need to be addressed in an urgent manner in order to ensure that it serves the best interest and well-being of the child. The three-tier system relies heavily on the Guardianship and Trusteeship Commissions at the local/municipal level. These commissions are composed of volunteers who often lack the specialized skills and training to decide on key issues concerning the life of the child. I therefore call on the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to assign relevant professionals, especially trained social workers, to these commissions to ensure that they analyse each case taking into account the views and best interest of the child, and enhance accountability in their performance.
I also urge the Government to review the status of the National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, to provide it with coordinating and supervisory functions and binding decision-making powers in respect of comprehensive child protection policy, define procedures for aligning a comprehensive child protection strategy with the national plan of action for the protection of the rights of the child, incorporating a gender perspective, and allocate necessary resources for its implementation at the local level. The National Commission should ensure the efficient functioning of the three-tier system through a bottom-up approach, whereby the Guardianship and Trusteeship Commissions at the local level and case managers of the Governorate can convey their experiences and needs, and receive the resources necessary to provide integrated and multidisciplinary child protection services with accountability.
I welcome the efforts deployed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to combat violence against children through the adoption of the Concept Note and Plan of Measures to Combat Abuse and Violence against Children 2015 - 2018. These plans and policy documents should constitute a good basis to launch comprehensive awareness raising and education campaigns on the rights of the child, equality among boys and girls, and parenting skills to combat abuse and violence against children at home and at schools. I also call on legislators and the government to adopt legislation on domestic violence as a means to combatting gender inequality and violence in the household.
In order to be effective, these awareness raising efforts must be accompanied by the establishment of child-friendly detection, identification, reporting and referral mechanisms. In this regard, I highly encourage the Government of Armenia to create a child-friendly helpline and hotline, free of cost, to report violence against and neglect of children.
In addition, care and recovery services are essential to ensure the rehabilitation and reintegration of children victims of violence and neglect. In this regard, I’d like to commend the work conducted by local NGOs in ensuring this assistance, and urge the Government to take up its primary responsibility in providing emergency interventions and rehabilitation programmes at the central, marz at local levels.
This whole array of programmes and measures must incorporate child participation mechanisms at all levels and throughout all stages. Child participation mechanisms empower children to gain confidence and trust. Their perspectives and experiences contribute to designing and consolidating effective child protection systems and promoting a culture of respect for children’s rights. As a young girl in Gyumri told me last week, “adults should listen to us when we speak up.”
Finally, I’d like to encourage the government to continue prioritizing the implementation of the National Action Plan for Human Rights in complementarity with the National Plan of Action for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, and to ensure their compliance with international norms and standards in their effective implementation.
I will present a comprehensive report on this visit to the UN Human Rights Council next year.
I thank you for your kind attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.