No child left behind: UNICEF in Serbia

Everything UNICEF does in Serbia has one clear goal: to ensure the full social inclusion of the country’s most vulnerable children.

This is a country on the road to EU membership, with a fully-functioning democracy and –until the global economic crisis of the late 2000s – falling poverty rates. It is a country that has almost halved its child mortality rates in just ten years, putting it on a par with its wealthier EU neighbour, Hungary. In short, Serbia is a country where most children are healthy, well-fed, educated and protected.

So why is UNICEF here? What’s the problem?

The problem is the widening gap between the majority of children whose rights are respected, and a significant minority whose most basic rights – to be part of a family, to have an adequate standard of living, to health, education and protection – are all at risk.

These are the most marginalized children and adolescents – such as the poorest, those with disabilities and those from Roma communities. UNICEF works to ensure that they are no longer left behind while the rest of Serbia forges ahead. We believe that lasting development begins with the well-being of the most marginalized and vulnerable children and adolescents, and this is where we focus our efforts.

As the global economic crisis has shown, economic progress is not always guaranteed, and we cannot rely only on economic growth to safeguard the rights of those who are excluded from its benefits. What is needed is a shift from ‘blanket’ approaches that benefit most children but overlook the most marginalized. We help Serbia’s systems to fulfil their obligations towards the most vulnerable children and adolescents, and respond to their specific situation, as blanket approaches aimed at the majority may not reach those on the margins of society. UNICEF works to ensure that these children and adolescents have ‘first call’ on political commitment, policies, resources and public attention. We do so by trying to improve the accountability of the state to fulfil child rights and provide them with quality services, working not only to strengthen systems but also to stimulate demand for rights and services from marginalized communities via their representatives, including parents’ associations and other community-based organizations.

Social inclusion is on the agenda

Serbia’s progress towards EU integration has pushed social inclusion higher up the Government agenda. There is growing recognition that attempts to build genuine and lasting social inclusion must focus on the most marginalized children and adolescents. A whole raft of good legislation is now in place to pull marginalized children into society, including the laws on inclusive education, on social protection, health care, juvenile justice, backed by protocols and by-laws setting out the roles and accountability of service providers. Serbia now has a range of independent child rights monitoring bodies that are tracking progress. It has an increasingly active and vocal civil society to hold the Government to account on its promises to marginalized children. And it has a thriving private sector that is increasingly aware of its corporate social responsibility.

From social inclusion policy to action for children

UNICEF helps to shape laws and legislation for vital improvements and to translate these into tangible progress for the most vulnerable children. Our work is not only about boosting access to services: it is about changing entire systems in favour of Serbia’s most marginalized children and adolescents.

Our goal is to ensure that, by 2015, more of the country’s most vulnerable children and adolescents are treated with dignity and respect, able to participate in the decisions that affect them, and able to express their opinions and views. One result of a stronger child rights infrastructure and greater engagement across society on children’s rights would be a growing number of marginalized children and families benefiting from pre-schooling, education, social welfare, health and justice services.

We strengthen systems – the supply side – to ensure that those working with and for children have guidelines, skills and support to meet their obligations. In our work on inclusive education, health, child care reform, juvenile justice and efforts to prevent violence against children, for example, we have helped to develop legislation, built the capacity of those with a duty to ensure respect for the rights of the most marginalized, and we have monitored progress.

We support the creation of social accountability – the demand side – so that parents and children know their rights and, through their representatives, are empowered to demand respect for those rights. We work with Roma-led NGOs, for example, to help Roma families claim their rights to health, education and other economic, social and cultural rights. We also work with the Parliament, Ombudsman and the private sector, all of whom have a major role to play, and a major influence, on the promotion and protection of child rights.

We build the knowledge and monitor progress on marginalized children through, for example, system analysis and for knowledge gathering systems, such as our work with Roma Health Mediators to capture much-needed data on Roma children. Our monitoring work includes support for the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) that are carried out every five years, as well as DevInfo – the database system endorsed by the UN Development Group to monitor human development at the country level across government departments, UN agencies and development partners. We are also supporting the development of social protection indicators to monitor inclusion of the most marginalized children and adolescents.

The complex problems faced by marginalized children cannot be addressed by any single sector or organization working alone. UNICEF works to bring different sectors together, so that they can forge strong links and address cross-cutting issues. Our aim is to build strong partnerships across all relevant actors from the highest levels of government to those most directly concerned and affected – Serbia’s vulnerable children and adolescents.

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