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Mentorships in Russia

Sponsorship of children with disabilities

At the time when UPAM came into contact with families of children with physical and mental disabilities in 1996, the practice of institutionalizing “problem” children (i.e. their unworthy confinement in “specialized centres”) was still widespread in Russia. However, the approach to disability in the country was already in the process of being challenged, at least in theory.

The need for change was beginning to be felt more and more intensely, accelerated in particular by the intervention of the foreign eye in some Soviet-style boarding schools, which led to the disclosure of horrifying testimonies, calling for respect for human dignity. This is why many families have kept children in their care in order to avoid their institutionalization, although they often do not have the material and pedagogical means to allow them to flourish.

Action in this area had a twofold objective. First, it was about supporting these families both psychologically and materially, which helped to spread a message of hope to other families. Secondly, it was a question of getting to know these families more closely, in order to help them build a response to the problem.

The sponsorship worked in this way: a specialist from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, who has been fighting for several years to integrate these children into the school system, identified families she knew personally on objective criteria such as material insecurity or psychological distress. For its part, UPAM is committed to finding people in Switzerland who are willing to make financial or material donations.

In 2001, UPAM managed only about ten sponsorships, but a broader movement was created that year, with 200 families affected directly or indirectly, on a more or less regular basis by donations. The very warm ties that have been forged by this action show that it was a solidarity that was not only material, but also a cultural exchange, an awareness of the theme of disability and its integration.

In 2002, UPAM voluntarily decided to stop this sponsorship activity, because the approach could not durably help to build a systemic solution. Since 2003, the situation of children with disabilities in Russia has improved considerably, for example, all sponsored children have been integrated into the school system. Despite its success, this method of sponsorship is questionable. It certainly makes it possible to forge emotional bonds between different people, but it cannot prevent the creation of inequalities in the face of donation.