At the August 8, 2019 sitting of the Government, chaired by Acting Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan, a decision was made to allocate gratuitous space to the Armenian Caritas NGO in Shahumyan and Taper communities of Ararat region. It is planned to create a city for socially vulnerable families and children with disabilities in the area.
The project, called the City of Children, aims to provide “safe housing for about 600 children with disabilities and from socially disadvantaged families and their families, and there may be up to 8,000 mediated beneficiaries from other provinces and capital of Armenia.”
At first glance, the program promises a good and important process, but it’s only at first glance…
According to the plan, the construction of special “cities” for children is a worldwide practice, first implemented in Italy after World War II. 70 years later, a similar program reaches Armenia in the 21st century but for people with disabilities and disadvantaged people who we regularly declare we do not separate from other segments of society.
The program clearly contradicts the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, the UN Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child, the Program of the Government of the Republic of Armenia that was approved on February 8, 2019, and a number of other programs currently being implemented by the Armenian government.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of the Republic of Armenia has already expressed a negative stance on the “City of Children” program. Minister Zaruhi Batoyan noted that she had been introduced to the draft project months ago and had informed the authors of her position:
“We have given a negative conclusion to the ‘City of Children’ project, and have presented our proposals to make the program as inclusive as possible. The way it is presented now simply contradicts the idea of inclusiveness,” the speaker of the Ministry Sona Martirosyan said in an interview with Forrights.
An extraordinary discussion of the project took place a few days ago with representatives of the Human Rights Defender’s Office. The Ombudsman’s office was unable to provide us with clear information, noting that investigations are currently underway. The Ombudsman’s office declined to comment on the plan.
“The Ombudsman is in the process of investigating; we are participating in hearings and discussions and are awaiting further documentation from the Government at this time. They will be studied in their turn, after which we will make a new public announcement,” Ombudsman’s spokeswoman Nune Hovsepyan told Forrights.
The program, which had to be accepted after serious research and discussions, was unknown to a number of human rights defenders and stakeholders. President of the Unison NGO Armen Alaverdyan, who has long been involved in advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities, learned about the program from Forrights. He expressed concern that such a serious project was being reported by the media, and said that it had to be seriously studied and discussed by interested parties:
“The project envisages a process leading to the old times. We have been struggling for 15 years to prioritize inclusive education, and this project takes us a few steps back. Children in that city will feel that they have to deal only with “people like them,” and “normal children” will live and deal with “ordinary people like them”. Years later, these children will come out of the “greenhouse” isolated and depressed. Even if the city is gold-plated, it still cannot be considered an effective project,” the human rights activist said.
Armen Alaverdyan does not exclude that the idea of the project was to start a good process, but emphasizes that every detail should be paid attention to.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia President Avetik Ishkhanyan, who was also unaware of the project, expressed doubts about the project: the goals are good, the depth is doubtful:
“This is quite worrying; Wouldn’t the city become a beautiful golden cage for vulnerable children? It is troubling; if the project is implemented, it will become a touring center to show how people in Armenia are treated by vulnerable groups.
The whole world is turning to inclusion of socially disadvantaged groups, in particular children, so that they do not feel alone, and we are actually collecting and isolating them. This project means isolation in good conditions,” Avetik Ishkhanyan told Forrights.
Gevorg Manukyan, assistant to Ararat Governor Garik Sargsyan, found it difficult to make any official comment on the program. He noted that it is still in the process of development, so many things are still in “probably” phase. Forrights tried to make it clear whether the City of Children will be for 600 needy and disabled people or for other people. Manukyan referred to the question from another point of view:
“The city will be open, there will be no gates or walls, people will be free to enter the city, there will always be activities. But I can’t say who can stay permanently,” said the governor’s assistant.
It took us several hours to get any position from the Armenian Caritas NGO, author of The City of Children project. They first mentioned that no one was authorized to talk about the program, but then, somehow, we got the director’s phone number, but his phone was off. Eventually our calls were answered by Anahit Gevorgyan, the project manager.
She noted that the program has no intend to isolate, but simply that they have been chosen as their primary target:
“Our goal is to create an environment where people in vulnerable groups come and receive education, have the opportunity to travel abroad and expand their surroundings,” Gevorgyan said.
She noted that other people can also use the services, but they would have to pay for them. The project manager was surprised to see that there were negative views on the project not only from the public but also from the ministry:
“The project is still under development. There may still be changes. We haven’t had any discussions yet, we haven’t mentioned any clear steps yet,” said Anahit Gevorgyan.
According to the official website of the Municipality of Yerevan, the area of the “City of Children” will cover about 1 hectare, the cost of the project will reach $ 1 million, and a period of 3 years has been noted for implementation.
Despite the fact that the start of the city’s construction is due in the fall, Armenian Caritas reports that the project has no funding yet;
“It’s still an idea that doesn’t have funding, this is still the first step. The fundraising process will take place during this period,” says the project manager.
After all, is the project an idea or a program already in place? Armenian Caritas promised to respond to this question in mid-September, when Gagik Tarasyan, the organization’s director, will return from vacation and hold a press conference.