LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova is best known for strutting down catwalks but she is most proud of her behind-the-scenes work – such as campaigning to keep disabled children out of orphanages as efforts mount to stop institutionalizing children.
Vodianova said she was acutely aware of the issues faced by families with disabled children after growing up with her half-sister Oksana who was born with cerebral palsy and autism in Nizhny Novgorod, 300 miles (500km) east of Moscow.
When Oksana was born, nurses at the hospital suggested her mother put her into an orphanage and have “another healthy child” - while Vodianova said she was bullied by other children at school for having a disabled sister.
“The rule has been that for many years children with special needs, with disabilities, are abandoned by their families,” Vodianova, 36, once nicknamed Supernova, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“You can’t blame the family. The system has not been adapted for a family to raise a child with special needs.”
The non-government organization Disability Rights International (DRI) said the institutionalization of children with disabilities is a worldwide problem and it has documented abuses against children in 25 countries.
Human Rights Watch has estimated that 30 percent of Russian children with disabilities lived in institutional orphanages of which 95 percent had at least one living parent.
The J.K. Rowling charity Lumos is also part of a growing campaign globally to help an estimated eight million children who live in orphanages and other institutions globally.
More than 80 percent of these children are not orphans but have been separated from their families because of shame, poverty or discrimination.
Vodianova got involved after she set up the Naked Heart Foundation in 2004 to help victims of an Islamist militant siege of a school in Beslan, southern Russia, which ended in a chaotic gun battle killing more than 300 people, including 186 children.
The charity works to help children with special needs stay with their families rather than be put in orphanages by providing support services and funding for other Russian NGOs.
Vodianova is now trying to tackle other forms of shame and stigma by helping to launch a ‘Let’s Talk’ initiative with the United Nations Population Fund, the international body’s agency focused on family planning, maternal and child health.
This involves a two-day conference in Antalya, Turkey, next week to find way to break taboos about women’s health, choices and rights with discussions on period poverty and the stigma attached to menstruation.
Now a mother to five children herself, Vodianova said she saw her mother as a hero for not opting to use an orphanage and choosing to look after three daughters herself after her husband had left despite being unemployed and ostracized by her family.
“She and my sister, who are thriving today, they are the point from which I can really continue fighting for all the families who have done the same and did not give up on their children,” she said.
Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org