Serbia is one of the countries with the highest level of inequity between rich and poor, warns Regina De Dominicis, the new UNICEF Representative in Serbia. She adds that the most vulnerable categories are children with disabilities, children from larger families, those in remote rural areas and Roma children.
In this interview for CorD Magazine, Regina De Dominicis says that UNICEF will soon prepare a new country programme of cooperation with the Government of Serbia, building upon existing good results and addressing new challenges.
You recently took on the role of UNICEF Representative in Serbia. What are your priorities now and in the period ahead?
I feel at home in Belgrade. The team and all partners have been wonderful in welcoming me. We are already accelerating together important results for children. Within the UNICEF mandate, rooted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Sustainable Development Goals, we focus on children who are left behind, supporting governments in implementing commitments and monitoring progress.
The priorities in Serbia are in line with identified needs and the government’s priorities, including the EU accession agenda – high quality and inclusive health and education, protection against violence, abuse and neglect, and justice for children. Monitoring children’s rights, advocacy and social mobilisation are part of our engagement with the National Assembly, academia, the private sector and civil society.
In the period ahead, while still addressing the “unfinished business” of early child development, we will also engage in the youth agenda. Data shows that young people are experiencing challenges in health, education, employment and protection, so we will work on strengthening meaningful learning outcomes, improving access to life and digital skills, employability and active citizenship. The identification and co-creation of innovative solutions for youth empowerment will be pursued by brokering new public-private partnerships and guaranteeing the participation of young people, especially girls.
You commemorated Universal Children’s Day in Serbia on 20th November. Are you satisfied with the reaction of the Government and the public?
The participation was beyond expectations, proving that children and young people are high on the agenda of the Serbian Government and society as a whole. Numerous activities were organised by governmental and non- governmental organisations, independent human rights monitoring bodies, corporates, faculties, individuals, and children and young people themselves. Together we celebrated progress, re-confirmed commitments and discussed work that’s still to be done.
Buildings and monuments in Serbia were lit up in blue. Street artists painted murals with children in their schools, while numerous celebrities joined UNICEF in raising additional funds.
Local 14-year-old Biljana Stojković was appointed as UNICEF’s Youth Advocate to elevate the voices of the youth about their rights, their concerns and their solutions for issues that impact on their lives.
Most importantly, the Government of Serbia re-affirmed its commitment to end violence against children by initiating the process of becoming a partner to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.
Data shows that young people are experiencing challenges in health, education, employment and protection, so we will work on strengthening meaningful learning outcomes, improving access to life and digital skills, employability and active citizenship
Research shows that the number of children in Serbia living in absolute poverty has increased and now totals 9.5%, while around another 30 per cent live at risk of poverty. How would you comment on these statistics and what can be done to change such a situation?
There has been impressive economic growth in Europe and Central Asia over the past 20 years, alongside improved living standards and a halving of the number of people living in poverty. But this progress masks equity gaps, with the benefits of economic advances, shared unevenly. Serbia is one of the countries with the highest level of inequity between rich and poor. The most vulnerable categories are children with disabilities, children from larger families, those in remote rural areas and Roma children.
Poverty in childhood can have life-long consequences. The poorest children are less likely to access healthcare or complete education and are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition. They cannot fully contribute to social, political and economic growth, and are more likely to perpetuate a cycle of poverty. The roots of the problem lie in a mix of the poor prioritisation of social protection programmes that benefit children, limited budgets and human resources, bureaucratic processes, a lack of information regarding entitlements and discrimination against the most vulnerable.
UNICEF helps to gather and analyse evidence on possible solutions and to have that evidence translated into tangible policies and activities for children, especially the most disadvantaged.
To improve the protection of the poorest children, we must look beyond monetary poverty. It is important to ensure that the level of investments in child-sensitive social protection is adequate and that coordination is effective between the sectors of health, education and child protection.
You’ve also worked in institutions of the European Union. To what extent does UNICEF’s work in Serbia correspond with the European integration process, which also implies the realising of sustainable development goals?
The UNICEF and UN programmes of cooperation with the Government of Serbia are fully aligned with the EU accession and SDG Agenda priorities. UNICEF and the EU are partnering to support national authorities in promoting children’s rights as part of the ongoing process of harmonising national laws and policies with EU standards and localising the 2030 Agenda.
The complementarities between the EU Accession Process and the SDGs and the “social dimension” of the EU Agenda offer additional opportunities to strengthen our strategic partnership.
Apart from poverty, what do you see as the biggest challenge for Serbia when it comes to caring for children and youth?
There are only 17.3% of children under the age of 18 in Serbia. They are a precious resource and require full support for their development. And yet, the infant mortality rate among children in Roma settlements is almost twice the national average. Only half of the children complete preschool education, while that figure is only 9% among the poorest and 6% among children from Roma settlements. Some 30% of children aged under five don’t have three children’s books at home.
Every fourth child aged 1-2 is subjected to physical punishment. Violent disciplining at home is widespread. Nearly 60% of girls from Roma settlements marry before the age of 18, while just 21% of Roma children attend secondary education and 17% of the youth aged 15-24 are not in education, employment or training.
How satisfied are you with your cooperation with state bodies and institutions in Serbia that are responsible for the care of children and youth?
UNICEF cooperates closely with the Government of Serbia at all levels. Progress has been made in early child development, education and de-institutionalisation. New challenges are, however, emerging: in youth unemployment, with growing disparities between urban and rural communities, and among vulnerable groups. We will soon be preparing a new country programme of cooperation with the Government, building on good results and addressing new challenges. Essential partners for success also include a vibrant civil society, a socially-engaged private sector, strong independent monitoring institutions and the media.
UNICEF’s policies also imply cooperation with the private sector. What’s the level of awareness among companies in Serbia when it comes to the importance of UNICEF and do they also support UNICEF as part of their CSR activities?
Partnership with the private sector aims to embed children’s rights into companies’ sustainability agendas and for them to nurture opportunities to make a difference for children through their operations and business policies.
The business sector is willing to collaborate. They contribute through the creation of innovative technologies, products and business models to address social challenges.
We have successful partnerships with Telenor, Nordeus, PhiAcademy, GSK, Vojvodjanska Bank, VodaVoda, Telekom, Algotech, UNIQA and over 23,000 individual donors who support our work.
The former Yugoslavia first received assistance from UNICEF in the immediate aftermath of WWII, in 1947. To what extent are Serbian Serbia today ready to support – privately and based on their own initiative – UNICEF’s work in other imperilled parts of the world?
There is a solid tradition of giving in Serbia. Some people still remember receiving aid from UNICEF after WWII. UNICEF greeting cards have been a symbol of solidarity. Our individual and corporate partners donate to UNICEF in Serbia, but also contribute to international emergencies when needed. We have volunteers who are supporting our work.
It is important to ensure that the level of investments in child-sensitive social protection is adequate and that coordination is effective between the sectors of health, education and child protection
How does UNICEF help children and young migrants stranded in Serbia?
The needs of refugees and migrants stranded in Serbia have grown. By coordinating closely with the Government of Serbia and UN agencies, UNICEF is assisting children in accessing protection, education, nutrition and other services. We are scaling up direct service delivery and outreach, providing technical assistance, building front-line workers’ capacities, advocating for the protection of refugee and migrant children. With our support, children receive psychosocial support in child-friendly spaces and mothers get support with breastfeeding practices and hygiene items in mother-and-child spaces. Our technical assistance helps the Ministry of Education to integrate these children into formal education.
We support the identification and referral of unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable children to child protection services and secure warm clothes for children at all refugee centres. All this has been made possible thanks to our donors.
There is a significant number of migrants in Serbia today, many of whom are minors without adult supervision, how would you rate the approach to this problem by the authorities in Serbia, particularly given the accusation that the treatment of migrants is bordering on the cruel?
The humanitarian context remains challenging throughout Europe, especially in relation to invisible migration routes, increasing political polarisation, immigration detention practises and exposure to gender-based violence, along with insufficient best interest determination and protective measures for children.
Like elsewhere, unaccompanied and separated children (UASCs) in Serbia need specific help – legal and psychosocial support, appropriate accommodation, adequate case management, access to education and life skills development.
These UASCs are now accommodated in one of three children’s homes within the regular foster system, which can mitigate the risk of exposure to abuse. The social welfare system assigns guardians who UNICEF and UNCHR have trained for supervision and monitoring.
Identification of UASCs remains important, as they don’t want to be “recognised” and enrolled in the welfare system, fearing this will stop their journey.