Poverty in the eyes of children
OCTOBER 2003, BARAJEVO, Serbia - "We are not a cost, we are an investment!"
"I have a lot of homework to do, but I have no time for that. I have to work in the field or load wood. I even do not have time to play," a child in Serbia writes to explain poverty.
Poverty has many faces. For jobless families it means no food on the table, for refugees no place to live and discrimination, for children from remote villages - hours of walking to the nearest school, and for children with disabilities, isolation and the impossibility of ever going outside.
"When I wake up, I sit with my grandmother. I spend all day in bed watching TV and listening to music until I go to sleep in the evening. I don't go out because I don't have a wheelchair." This was written by a child in a group of children from poor families during a UNICEF-supported workshop on the causes of poverty in children.
"Poverty is not simply lack of money, food and housing. It means no access to education and health care, social exclusion and discrimination – for whatever reason, be it nationality, refugee status or disability. It is also the absence of any cultural or sport activities," says UNICEF Project Officer Oliver Petrovic. Poverty is a denial of human rights and human dignity.
"Poverty is the key problem for children in Serbia, with 800,000 children living at or below the poverty line,"
For the first time, children in Serbia have had their say in the creation of a government strategy, one of great importance -- how to struggle with increased poverty.
"Finally someone has remembered to ask how we feel about all this," one of the children says.
"Poverty is the key problem for children in Serbia, with 800,000 children living at or below the poverty line," says Ivan Ivic, a professor at Belgrade University, and member of the government's Council for Children's Rights.
The country has been impoverished by over a decade of dysfunction in state systems, political turbulence and interethnic tension, the wars of the Yugoslav succession, successive waves of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as a stalled economy.
Officially 10.8 percent of families in Serbia are poor. In addition, the majority of half a million refugees and displaced persons live in poverty. Displaced people have not even been included in the health care system. People with disabilities suffer social exclusion, and very often have no access to education. Many Roma children have never been enrolled in school, some have not been registered and vaccinated and the majority live in very bad conditions, with no access to clean water or sanitation.
"How do we survive? " asks Milena, a 23-year-old single mother of five in her broken down, one roomed house in a village just 35 km from the capital where a large number of internally displaced Roma people live. "I don't know. I get flour from one neighbour, some food scraps for my children from another. It would be nice to get some wood to keep us warm in winter."
The five shabbily dressed and runny-nosed children, aged 2 to 7, laugh and haul their only toys - stray dogs and a kitten - about the dingy little room. A broken wood stove, two old couches, a table and two plastic chairs furnish their home. Milena's husband has left and her parents, who live in another part of the country, have refused to take her back with so many children.
The family participated in research on the causes and consequences of poverty among children, called "Participatory Research on Poverty among Children in Serbia."
"The objective is to explore poverty among children, but also to see the situation from the children's perspective, to find out what they believe are the greatest problems in their communities and what solutions they would recommend," says Petar Arbutina, member of a local non-governmental organisation.
The Association for the Development of Spirit and Intellect is one of the nine NGOs helping the government and UNICEF in a participatory research project on poverty in Serbia. The survey covers 7,000 households in the most deprived parts of Serbia, and for the first time, children and parents have been actively included.
"We are working with children on four aspects: how poverty manifests itself in their eyes, what the causes are, what the solutions have been in the past - whether successful or not and what the best solutions in general would be, and finally who should solve the problems and in what way," Arbutina explains.
He stresses that participatory research does not use traditional tools, like polls and questionnaires, but other techniques, much more acceptable to children, and more like a game.
"I like this so much, and I want it to happen in every class and every school. I liked the most when we discussed how to overcome the obstacles and how to fight the problems. And we managed to find solutions all together," 10-year-old Milica says proudly.
"I liked the most when we glued little fish on a big sheet of paper," Milica (7) says, referring to the solutions written on the fish-shaped piece of paper, while the obstacles were paper stones.
"We need books. We don't have a library at school, and many children can't afford all the schoolbooks. So we decided to get together and make our own library," says Natasa, (11).
A big problem tree is drawn on the board. One group of children works on identifying the problems and their sources, and another on the proposals to overcome the problems.
"I want to show that we are the same as other children," one child said.
"We're amazed by the way children think. They are aware of the problems, conscious of their causes and they offer possible solutions, which are very feasible. They are fantastic," says Snezana Stankovic, another workshop leader.
"Parents should teach their children kindness and culture, but they don't have time," reads one child's line on the classroom wall.
"A child is poor if they don't have: parents, home, friends, finished school, toys, television. A child is not poor if they are healthy, have a family, home, books, and their parents' support," children wrote.
"Poverty in its broad meaning is a lack of resources not only lack of money. Poverty affects children especially hard. It is during childhood that the basis is laid that make it possible for a person to develop her or his full potentials. If that is not taking place, it cannot be fully compensated afterwards. It is thus especially important in times of poverty to ensure that despite shortage of funds all children, with a special focus on poor children, will anyhow have access to health and quality education. This survey helps us to understand with their words what poverty is for children," Ann-Lis Svensson, UNICEF Area Representative, says.
Serbian President of the Governments' Council on Child Rights, Mr. Zarko Korac, stressed that a national plan for the protection of children's rights is under development, with a focus on poverty. The strategy for poverty reduction will be an important part of the plan.
By Ljiljana Cvekic