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International Conference “Right to Education for Every Child: Removing Barriers and Fostering Inclusion for Roma Children” in Belgrade

BELGRADE, Serbia - June 2009

The International Conference on the “Right to Education for Every Child: Removing Barriers and Fostering Inclusion for Roma Children” was held in Belgrade on 2 -3 June 2009 within the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

The aim of the Conference was to scrutinize policies, identify successful practices, lessons learnt and to agree upon the key strategic steps  It focused on four thematic areas:

  • The importance of starting and including children early in education
  • Ending segregation and fostering inclusion
  • Supportive classroom and school environment
  • Public financing for vulnerable children

The Conference gathered senior officials and experts from the Ministries of Education of Roma Decade Countries, Roma civil society representatives, international and local education experts, representatives of UN and other international organizations, European Commission Delegation in Serbia, Council of Europe, and bilateral partners.

© UNICEF Serbia / Zoran Jovanovic Maccak / 2009
From left to right: Ms. Judita Reichenberg, Area Representative, UNICEF, Serbia, Mr. Steven Allen, Regional Director, UNICEF, Regional Office CEE/CIS, H.E. Ambassador Josep Lloveras, Head of EC Delegation to the Republic of Serbia

The following statement was delivered by UNICEF Regional Director for CEE/CEES Steven Allen.
‘Every child matters and has the right to be given a chance’

Honourable Minister, Distinguished participants, Colleagues from Partner organisations, especially Roma Organisations, Colleagues from the UN, Friends,

It is a pleasure to be with you here today, and to be back in Belgrade and in a part of the world where I have many fond memories. I am also aware of the challenges of the past, and those that lie ahead as you build this important part of Europe.

We are here this week to find ways to remove barriers from the rights of Roma children to Education; and to remove them quickly, decisively and to ensure that they do not return in new forms. Economic and financial crisis is going to make this harder. There is a risk of budgetary cuts on all sides, and real prospects of fiscal constraints for a lengthy period. We are already seeing a rise in xenophobia that so often accompanies difficult economic times. Now our efforts to address exclusion and tackle problems, which were not resolved in recent ‘good times’ of economic growth, become even more urgent and pressing.  

I want to concentrate on two aspects of the challenge ahead as we look at education. First, I want to build on what Professor Davies has just said on the right of every child to education. The right to education is not something to be given or taken away. All children, no matter their origins, abilities, ethnicity or economic status, have a right to education.

Focusing on the rights of all children changes the perspective with which we look at why so many Romany children are not in school. The education system and the services that support it, need to work for each and every child, including Roma. This takes us away from the many pilot projects, which have been helpful in showing the way but till now have not succeeded in bringing systemic change.  Specific actions are needed for Roma children. But they must be part of a wider approach to making our education systems more open, more inclusive, more enriching, for all children.  We need good policies for all children – plus targeted efforts for the Roma child.

Every government gathered here is committed to build a socially inclusive society. But that cannot be achieved unless every single child is included. The school and education system becomes a crucial space for bringing about social change.  Children from the mainstream gain by learning from different cultures. This helps breakdown stereotypes, and builds understanding and appreciation of diversity.

There are economic gains from investing in the education of each and every child, leading to better employment prospects, especially for young Roma adults.
Secondly, I want to focus on the particular dimension which UNICEF – and science – believe is crucial in breaking down life-long barriers of deprivation: namely early child development (ECD). 

ECD is at the heart of the social inclusion agenda.  It has become a central part of many countries efforts to combat structural deprivation and to empower communities to tackle intergenerational disadvantage. 

What do we know?      

Early childhood is a particularly critical period for the realisation of child rights. Early experience interacting with the environment has a fundamental influence on a child’s development, starting before birth, and is central to the child’s health, growth and development.

Early childhood interventions in poor neighbourhoods lead to children doing much better in schooling, leading to holding down jobs and performance in later life. 

Early experiences set children on trajectories that become progressively harder and more expensive to modify as they grow older.  Most children are resilient and cope with difficult circumstances, but children who start behind are likely to stay behind.

These we know, and yet remarkably little experience exists in drawing on this knowledge to benefit Roma children, and in making early childhood development a part of Roma development strategies. 

So how do we bring that knowledge to bear to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage that Roma children face? 

We need to ‘start early’.  Issues that should not in principle have anything to do with ECD, such as birth registration and not having civil registration documents, become critical barriers in the presence of discrimination. They can lead to the denial of a child’s later access to health, education and development.

We do not need new and expensive services. If existing health, education and social protection services are ‘inclusive’, much of the battle would be won. If cash transfers reach all those whom they are intended for - and were of a real value to the family - then many more Roma children would be supported in going to school.

What we do need is space for Roma communities to say what they feel is appropriate and how such services can be built. 

Pre-school moves to centre stage. Kindergartens are often seen as a support to working mothers. It is often overlooked that access to pre-school is just as essential in poorer communities who may not have regular access to jobs.

ECD can be a critical part of transition to primary and secondary schooling. But these benefits disappear rapidly if the school is not welcoming and responsive.

ECD is not just child care but includes counselling and other support for families with young children. In other parts of the world, ECD is a key part of community actions, emphasising peer to peer interaction and links with other social and economic programmes. Such innovations can be powerful, and mobilising.

But as we make a concerted push for ECD, there are pitfalls to be avoided: 

It is not a matter of just transferring knowledge of parenting mechanically to parents.  There is a risk that we see the family as the problem rather than as a resource; and that we see the Roma child as a problem rather than as an asset.  It is about building confidence and empowerment of the family, seeing its strengths and what is needed to direct those strengths to benefit the child.

Children do not grow up in isolation from their environment.  A close link exists between ECD and the rights of young Roma girls and young Roma women. At the same time, early marriage and early and repeated childbirth can have serial, negative effects on a girl’s health and on her ability to access and stay in education.

Policies in education and health alone will not do the job, nor introducing strategies that appear to bring solutions and behaviour change, but fail to take into account the environment of discrimination in which such interventions are launched.

This week’s meeting is a turning point - the beginning of a major re-orientation of our work on education as part of the Decade.  We need to do what we are doing better, to be more rigorous in approach and in ensuring that ECD is indeed part of the lives of Roma children.

This requires a significant engagement and effort, backed by research on ‘what works’, evaluation, and coordinated policy action, and investment of resources in a new area, when budgets are tight.

Partnerships are crucial, and partnerships around ECD require special reflection. We need a partnership around ECD – as an area of work, bringing together the best global and regional knowledge, with Roma and mainstream communities. This needs to be an explicit part of the Decade, with a ‘roadmap’ which all partners share and commit to. A roadmap backed with some money, of course. Partnerships are needed with and within Government.  Synergy is needed between sectoral actions, for which joint commitments of different ministries are required.   
Such an engagement cannot be done ‘for’ Roma. It has to be with the full participation of the Roma community. ‘Nothing about us, without us’ is even more important for issues around family life and development of children. There has to be a partnership with parents, and participation of children.

Here I would like to underline UNICEF’s own commitment to this goal. We already have a strong and creative collaboration with the Roma Education Fund (REF) and with Open Society Institute (OSI).
UNICEF is committed to work with partners and governments of Decade countries to take forward the agenda for action that emerges from this Conference. The right of every child to develop to his or her full potential is at the heart of our mandate. Every child has to be given a chance – at the earliest opportunity.

We need to change systems. We need commitment to social inclusion to be at the centre of the Lisbon agenda. Otherwise our actions will be neither decisive nor sustained. 

This is not going to be easy, but I am equally convinced that it is doable. Enough reports have been written, many left on dusty shelves (or in long forgotten computer files). Enough meetings have taken place without clear follow-up action. The denial of the rights of Roma children to education has been going on for too long. Let’s make this week in Belgrade different and decisive.
Thank you.



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