THE BEST START IN LIFE
© UNICEF Serbia/Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
UNICEF supports measures to give the most marginalized children in Serbia the best possible start in life. Without a full range of care and protection in their earliest years, these are the children who are most likely to be left behind. The early years, from birth to school, are critical for a child’s intellectual, physical and social development, and we aim to seize this short window of opportunity.
The progress and challenges
- New laws have banned the institutionalization of any child under the age of three.
- But there is a chronic lack of comprehensive early childhood development (ECD) services that look beyond the provision of pre-school services to include social welfare, health and nutrition.
- Infant mortality rates among Roma children are more than twice as high as the national average.
- Rates of low birth weight among Roma babies are double the national average.
- Some Roma children lack birth registration.
- Breastfeeding rates have fallen in recent years from an already low start point.
- Parents lack knowledge on the importance of the early years and how best to support the development of their young children.
- There is low uptake of early pre-school education for children aged 3 to 5: only 44 per cent of children attend overall, falling to just 8 per cent of children from Roma settlements.
What we do
UNICEF’s work in a range of areas, from support for child health right through to the strengthening of community social welfare services, aims to create a level playing field for the most marginalized young children. The Roma Health Mediators, for example, connect Roma parents to local health services before their babies are born, and support new parents on breastfeeding, birth registration and immunization, as well as encouraging participation in early learning.
Our development of Baby- and Mother-friendly standards and guidelines aims to reverse the decline in breastfeeding and give maternity staff and other health professionals the skills they need to meet their obligations to the most vulnerable mothers in their care. And our work with maternity staff and paediatricians aims to change their approach to new-borns with a disability, encouraging parents to keep their children with them, and linking them to available support services.
Our overall support for training, guidelines and standards for community-based services aims to help them meet their obligations to all marginalized children, including the very youngest.
© UNICEF Serbia/Zoran Jovanovic Maccak
Building the evidence
- UNICEF provides key data on young child well-being through the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys
- Our evaluation of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) highlighted serious weaknesses in support for breastfeeding, and has led to the development of baby-friendly standards for maternity hospitals and primary health centres.
- UNICEF has developed new health guidelines that cover early childhood development
- We support the Ministry of Health on the development of mother- and baby-friendly standards, with a strong focus on better communication between professionals and new parents.
- Our work to prevent the institutionalization of very young children contributed to recent legislation banning the institutional care for any child under the age of three, and we have helped to draw up the by-laws on fostering, including the fostering of children with disabilities, and emergency fostering.
Creating social accountability
- We work alongside parents’ group to build demand for a whole range of early childhood services, from support for breastfeeding and ante-natal care, through to pre-schooling.
- With support from UNICEF, Roma Health Mediators help marginalized families and communities to claim their rights to crucial early childhood services, such as birth registration, immunization, pre-schooling, and welfare entitlements.
- Working through our local partners, we provide crucial information to parents on the importance of early childhood development, and our current programme aims to strengthen the role of fathers in the crucial early years.
Working in partnership
- We work with a multitude partners in such areas as health, education and social welfare to build, and monitor and generate demand for community services that reach marginalized children. This includes, for example, local civil society organizations that carry out independent monitoring of maternity hospital care and Centres for Social Work that are on the front-line of child protection.