“I was one of the lucky ones.”

Olga Kurylenko and daughter

Today, Olga Kurylenko is a successful Hollywood actress, but having been brought up in a single parent family in Ukraine, she knows only too well how children growing up in poverty are at risk of being locked up in the country’s vast network of orphanages.

Now, as a Global Ambassador for Hope and Homes for Children, Olga is calling on Ukraine to not back-track on its commitment to close all state orphanages by 2026.

My mother raised me in Ukraine on her own, where single mums experience alarming rates of poverty. I was one of the lucky ones. Sadly, so many less fortunate single parents are coerced into putting their children into orphanages. Locked up alone, they can face torture, sexual violence and trafficking. In fact there are more children facing these kinds of dangers in orphanages in my home country than almost anywhere else in Europe; 100,000 children—yet very few of them are really orphans.

More than nine in every ten of these children have parents or other close relatives, one recent survey found. With the right support, so many of them could return home and grow up in the love and security of a family instead.

Many single parents are coerced into putting their children into orphanages.

Last year, the Government of Ukraine was supposed to start moving these tens of thousands of children out of orphanages and into families where they could be supported to grow up with the love and individual care that every child needs. It’s heart-breaking to learn that Ukraine’s promise to end the use of orphanages for all children now lies in tatters after Cabinet Ministers decided to continue locking up vulnerable children under the age of three. They have also announced that 50,000 disabled children will stay warehoused indefinitely in these terrifying Soviet-style institutions. The conflict in Crimea and impact of Coronavirus have seen many children unnecessarily taken into institutions in Ukraine. Disabled children are at greatest risk of being separated from their families in this way. Too often they are excluded from schools and are unable to access health and vital social services. Desperate parents see the orphanages as the only way to provide any support for their children.

In 2010, I travelled back to Ukraine to visit Hope and Homes for Children’s programme, and I have seen with my own eyes the shocking and loveless conditions children needlessly face in orphanages there. If Ukraine backtracks on its promise to scrap these institutions and support families to care for their children instead, thousands of forgotten babies and disabled children will suffer abuse and neglect while locked up. I was shocked to learn how vulnerable children in Ukraine are often misdiagnosed with medical conditions and prevented from attending mainstream schools. Parents are then coerced into sending them to orphanages, far away from their families.

I have seen with my own eyes the shocking and loveless conditions children needlessly face in orphanages.

Hope and Homes for Children’s ‘Behind the Mask of Care’ study revealed how 86% of babies in one Ukrainian orphanage received exaggerated diagnosis for routine conditions and could have been cared for at home. A lack of one-on-one care caused 90% of these children to suffer developmental disorders while shut away. A report by Disability Rights International has shown how disabled children living in Ukrainian institutions face forced labour, routine beatings, sexual abuse, forced abortions, drugging, shackling, exposure to brothels operating from orphanage basements and trafficking for illegal organ transplants. The enormous sums that are spent on funding orphanages must be redirected to support children to be reunited with their birth families, or to find new, safe and loving foster families for all children.

This is why Hope and Homes for Children has joined forces with like-minded NGOs to call on the European Union to press Ukraine to reinstate its plans to dismantle its orphanage system. Ukraine’s U-turn on shutting the world’s biggest network of state-run orphanages flies in the face of international law and leaves 100,000 children at risk of torture, sexual violence and trafficking. I am glad to add my voice to all those calling on Ukraine to eliminate its network of orphanages and fund new social services instead—strengthening families to stay together so all children can grow up where they belong, with someone to love them.

Ukranian-born actress and model, Olga Kurylenko, went from a childhood sharing a cramped flat with her mother and her relatives, to starring opposite Daniel Craig in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. “I maybe missed money in my childhood,” she has said, “but I didn’t miss love, that’s for sure.