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02.17.2016

Alumna champions disadvantaged children

No matter how wealthy or developed a country is, a child living on the streets is proof that its policies have failed, said Ketevan “Keti” Melikadze (MIDP ’02).

As a social welfare officer with UNICEF, Melikadze works with the government in her home country of Georgia to put laws, policies and services in place that protect and provide for the welfare of children. She and her team have been instrumental in crafting and pushing through groundbreaking legislation and policy that have protected children deprived of parental care, children with disabilities, and victims of abuse.

The mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Melikadze said she understands the importance of acting cautiously but decisively in her work.

“When you’re experimenting in a field that deals with children,” she said, “You cannot fail.”

Voice for the vulnerable

Only a few years ago in Georgia, parents could not be legally punished for beating their children.

Melikadze was part of a team at UNICEF that worked with legal experts on a package of 18 amendments to hold parents and professionals accountable for abuse and neglect. The changes, introduced in 2014, also grant social workers the power to remove children from abusive homes.

In addition, UNICEF supported the government’s Child Welfare Reform project in 2005, which closed large state-run institutions and returned children to their biological families or placed them with foster families. From 2005 to 2015, the number of children in institutions plummeted from more than 4,000 to just over 80.

A substantial part of Melikadze’s work relates to protecting the rights of children with disabilities. When Georgia ratified the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014, she and her team were responsible for ensuring that the rights of children figured prominently in the legislation.

“We basically revised the entire Georgia legislation from the viewpoint of the child,” she said. 

Melikadze is also active in efforts to provide health, education and social services for children living and working on the streets. As part of this initiative, she helps develop campaigns and educational materials to influence public perception. One of these campaigns, designed to prevent people from giving money to children living on the street, is called, “Give a child a hand, not money.”

“Giving them money creates demand,” she said. “What they need is support.”

Currently Melikadze is at Harvard University completing her master’s degree in public health, along with a child protection certificate. Her studies, she said, are helping her synthesize a variety of fields.

“Child protection is the most inter-sectorial field you can imagine,” she said. “You need to bring knowledge and resources from justice, education, health, law enforcement. You can’t do it alone.”

Putting policy into practice

Melikadze was initially trained as a medical doctor. Soon after she began practicing, however, she realized it wasn’t for her.

She explored a variety of fields before landing on public policy. “At a certain point, I realized that public policy was a way to take my medical background and apply it to the bigger picture.”

In 2000, she was awarded the prestigious Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship, which enabled her to come to Duke to earn her master’s degree in international development policy (MIDP).

“The majority of things I’m doing now reflects what I learned at MIDP,” she said. “It helped me see how policy works in the development world, and also whether initiatives can be scaled up or applied somewhere else.”

After her graduation in 2002, she began working at the Strategic Research Center, a think tank in Georgia that helps state agencies and organizations define their policy goals and strategies. One of the organizations she advised, the First Step Foundation, soon asked her to take the helm as its director.

The Tbilisi-based foundation is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for children with special needs. The organization not only manages its own homes and day care center, but also works to destigmatize disabilities and lobbies the government to be more responsive to the needs of children with disabilities.

During her five years as director, Melikadze was responsible for fundraising, developing new programs and crafting policies and guidelines. In addition, she was the official caregiver of 24 children who lived at two homes managed by the foundation.

She calls her work with the foundation – and with children in general – the most arduous work she’s ever done. But the rewards, she said, more than make up for the challenges.

“You see how the work you do gradually influences them for the better,” she said. “You see the light come back into their eyes.”