Are the rights of most-at-risk adolescents in Ukraine violated: results of piloting the tool for human rights monitoring

Traditionally we think that human right defenders organize actions, protest near the Parliament, or we think of them as those having legal education and regularly going to courts. However, every person can be a human right defender. Each specialist who provides services to vulnerable groups is, in fact, a human rights defender.

Reasons for implementing the monitoring tool

Within the last years, Ukraine has achieved great successes in fighting HIV epidemics; however, there are still many gaps that require immediate attention. First of all, there is a gap in providing prevention and treatment services for most at risk adolescents and youth, especially those who used drugs.

According to the latest estimates, the number of most-at-risk adolescents (MARA) is 129 000, including 21 700 injection drug users (UNICEF, 2015). However, there is no official data on the exact number of MARA, including underage drug users. In Ukraine MARA represent a very closed group, thus the lack of statistical data, stigma, discrimination and legal barriers make their access to HIV/STI services more complicated.

Starting from 2012, International Charitable Foundation “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEWUkraine) has been supporting the establishment of the system of services for adolescents using drugs. This work is conducted within the framework of the project “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations”, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Social bureaus, rehabilitation center and day care centers in Kharkiv, Poltava, Kropyvnytskyi and Chernivtsi were opened and are functioning successfully. Only in 2017 these centers and bureaus provided 21 290 services to 1 215 adolescents.

Project experience demonstrates that the rights of underage drug users are often violated, and this fact remains unknown to anyone from their close environment, including parents. Lack of response leads to repeated cases of violations, thus creating barriers in getting timely assistance, and, as a result, increases the possibility of negative consequences of drug use and unsafe behaviours. Therefore, violation of rights of underage drug users, that remains unnoticed is among the factors that contribute to increased risks of HIV infection.

Despite frequent cases of violations reported by service providers, these cases are not officially registered and publicly unknown. One of the reasons is the lack of mechanisms to recognize and document violations towards underaged in the system of service delivery. Young people are rarely sharing the facts of violations, as they have little knowledge about their own rights or do not believe that anything can be changed. Besides, social workers and psychologists that have the most direct contact with MARA either do not have enough knowledge and skills to respond to violations, or think that this can be done only by lawyers.

That is why in 2016 AFEW-Ukraine and its partners started developing a tool for monitoring human rights violations of adolescents using drugs. The tool can be also applied to any other category of most-at risk adolescents, and it can be used by any specialist who works with MARA and has basic knowledge about human rights. It was important to design the tool in a way that the service providers could recognize the facts of violations even if a young person came to them with a completely different problem.

The overall objective of its implementation was to collect the data about cases of violations so that services providers and stakeholders could understand the scope of the problem and, based on that, improve and adjust advocacy actions on the national and local levels. Besides, use of the tool could help to provide timely response to the violations of rights of each client, offering an algorithm of actions that can facilitate it. This instrument can be used by a wide range of organizations and specialists that work with vulnerable children, adolescents and youth.

“Our task was to demonstrate that a social worker or any other professional working with key populations can stand for the rights of their clients. That it in fact does not require neither special legal education, nor being a part of job description.” – comments Anastasiya Shebardina, senior project manager from AFEW-Ukraine, – “However, frequently specialists do not understand that the problems faced by their clients are in fact cases of human rights violations that need special attention.”

Piloting the monitoring tool 

The tool for monitoring the violations of human rights of most-at-risk adolescents consists of instruction on the use of the tool, screening questionnaire for social workers and other service providers to identify the cases of violation, template for legal claim and online form for registering the cases of human rights violations that are filled by social workers or other specialists. The forms are filled online on the website of AFEW-Ukraine.

Since the beginning of 2017 the monitoring tool has been piloted in 4 cities (Kropyvnytskyi, Chernivtsi, Poltava and Kharkiv) in the NGOs- partners in the project “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations”. In each city, AFEW-Ukraine organized introductory 2-days trainings for partner NGOs and service providers from referral network. The trainings equipped the participants with basic knowledge about human rights, especially children’s rights, and presented the practical issues of using the monitoring tool. More than 100 people took part in the trainings. Also, an educational webinar was organized for a wider range of participants who wished to learn more about the monitoring tool.

Currently all project clients – adolescents who use drugs, that get in the client management programmes, are screened for human rights violations. Identified cases are documented in online form. Legal consultant of AFEW-Ukraine analyses the cases and helps local specialists to select the best strategy for solving legal problems.

Results of monitoring tool piloting

In the period from January to December 2017 in 4 pilot cities 792 interviews with adolescents and youth aged 14-21 were conducted with the use of screening questionnaire. Among these 430 adolescents were 14-18 years old. Number of cases of human rights violations, registered in an online form was 92 (12%) of all surveyed).

Results of piloting the tool demonstrate that the format for monitoring and documenting cases of human rights violations helps service providers to better recognize them and provide timely response to violations. Analysis of the documented cases allows to identify typical situations for each separate region or city.

Thus, in Kharkiv and Poltava the most frequent cases included violations of rights of children from internally displaced families to education, and right to housing for orphans. In Chernivtsi there is a problem of lacking an effective mechanism to respond to suicide attempts among adolescents, especially if they are related to drug use. In Kropyvnytskyi an important factor that causes the violations is the activity of so called “Preventive Councils”, that are created at secondary and vocational schools for public punishment of young people in case of misconduct (for example, if an adolescent broke school regulations, used drugs or alcohol, etc.). The meetings of these Councils are attended by teachers of educational institutions, priests and specialists from other institutions (e.g. psychologists), where they often publicly humiliate and frighten “troubled” adolescents.

In each city quite a lot of cases related to the breach of presumption of innocence by police officers and educational specialists were registered. One third of cases relates to stigmatization and discrimination of young people, which demonstrates the limitation their rights and freedoms, in particular right to honor and dignity. Discrimination in one sphere of life may also lead to violation of rights in other spheres.

Information received with the help of monitoring tool and analysis of cases allows to make advocacy of MARA interests more effective both on local and national levels. Monitoring data may be used for starting a dialogue among all stakeholders for identifying the best strategy to solve the problems of most at risk adolescents.

Social workers, teachers and psychologists can be very good defenders of adolescents’ rights. Having received basic training on human rights, these specialists can often solve problem issues even without legal help. But to make the response systematic and ensure that all, even very difficult cases are properly addressed, it is very important to ensure that legal specialists and human rights organizations are involved in providers referral networks. Legal specialists should also be aware about typical problems faced by adolescents at risk, and have basic knowledge about specifics of working with at-risk youth.

There were some difficulties in using the tool for monitoring human rights violations: often underaged do not want to disclose facts of violations, and especially can be reluctant to have it documented. Also, specialists that conduct monitoring, often describe the situation too generally, or do not record the cases if they quickly solved the problem, if a case is too difficult and if a specialist is not sure whether the case is attributed to human rights violation.

Future plans

In the nearest future an online course on human rights monitoring for most-at-risk youth will be developed. This course will be free and will allow any interested person working with at-risk children, adolescents and youth, having no special legal training, learn about the rights of adolescents and algorithms of response to the violations of their rights.

Documentation and analysis of cases with the use of monitoring tool will be continued and be used for further advocacy. AFEW-Ukraine will support specialists in solving the most difficult cases.

It is planned that the monitoring tool will be improved, based on the need, and disseminated to other regions of Ukraine.