Every child has a right to healthy nutrition, education, and health care

Regina M. Castillo, UNICEF Representative in Croatia talks about pilot programme Testing of the Child Guarantee implemented in seven countries

Vecernji list, Radmila Kovacevic
Regina M. Castillo, predstojnica Ureda UNICEF-a za Hrvatsku
20 August 2021

Croatia is among the seven European Member States that has been participating in the pilot programme Testing of the EU Child Guarantee, with the aim of ending child poverty and social exclusion. Can you elaborate with more details, please?  

Regina Castillo: We at UNICEF are committed to supporting the European Union in fulfilling its promise laid out in the European Child Guarantee. The realization of this political commitment would mean that every child in Europe benefits from basic services and has good support to learn and thrive. Currently one in five children in the EU is living a childhood of disadvantage, particularly after the consequences of the pandemic. Our aim, and that is very much at the heart of the Child Guarantee, is to ensure that every child in the European Union has access to healthcare, education, childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition. Unfortunately, we know that poverty and deprivation in childhood can mark children for the rest of their lives. Living a childhood of disadvantage can undermine child’s health, education and prospects for future income, as well as the child’s ability to thrive in adulthood. In Europe, partially through the Child Guarantee initiative, UNICEF is supporting countries to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children, particularly children with disabilities, children from poor families, children residing in institutions and migrant and refugee children.  

How advanced is the implementation of the programme? How many children in Croatia will benefit from it? 

Regina Castillo: The testing of the Child Guarantee programme in Croatia, financed by the European Union, is focused on the Međimurje County, but with the view that its benefits and lessons learned will affect many more children indirectly and in the future. This phase of the Child Guarantee initiative is an opportunity to test and select the activities and interventions that have the best potential for sustainability and replication - which means that other counties in Croatia and other countries in the EU will be able to replicate, adapt and learn from the examples we are putting in place now. Our interventions and activities are aimed at enhancing inclusive pre-primary-education, early childhood intervention in case of developmental delays and disabilities, as well as at increasing the availability of integrated social services for parents and families. For example, one segment of our programme, the Parenting support for children living in precarious situations already reached 253 beneficiaries, and its lessons learned will shape many more interventions in the future. In this county, 40% of children are not attending pre-school. Every second child aged 0 to 7 that has biomedical factors leading to risks of developmental delays does not receive adequate services in early childhood. If a child has a risk of developmental delays for social factors, the situation is even more worrying. Phase III of the Child Guarantee aims to provide arguments and evidence that multidisciplinary and integrated community and family-based support can and should be widely available and adequately resourced.  

With the implementation of the programme, we would like to see more children attending pre-school; more children diagnosed early if they have a disability or a developmental delay and provided with the services they need to thrive; more parents with the skills they need to be more attuned, caring and better prepared parents; more children having access to comprehensive services that not only look at the child from a health or education perspective, but services that consider at the child holistically, with all his/her rights. 


Why was Međimurje County chosen for „Testing the Child Guarantee“? 

Regina Castillo: Međimurje County has the largest percentage of disadvantaged children and our Government partners found it a good place to implement our programmes. The testing of the Child Guarantee is essentially a partnership to deliver results for children. The programme could not be possible without the support from 11 implementing partners and service providers, 6 municipalities and the National Government. Both our project partners and the families we are helping have shown great enthusiasm and we can easily feel their love and warmth. Projects like this give us strength every day and provide us with hope for a better future. Of course, none of this would be possible without our many field partners and I would like to mention them all: Čakovec and Prelog Centres for Social Welfare and their branch of Family center in Čakovec, the Croatian Association of Social Workers, the Growing Up Together Centre, Croatian  Office for Creativity and Innovations (HUKI), Čakovec branch of the Faculty of Education of Univer of Zagreb, Open Academy Step by Step, Association for Early Childhood Intervention Međimurje, Croatian Association on Early Childhood Intervention, Médecins du Monde and the Croatian Academy for Developmental Rehabilitation. 

How do you see the situation of children in Croatian society and which are the biggest problems for you?  

Regina Castillo: UNICEF has a long history here; we were the first international organisation in Croatia; our office opened even before Croatia was officially recognized. Back then  children needed our help and support mostly for other reasons that are fortunately behind us, but some remain to this day. The fact that Croatia was chosen as one of the 7 pilot countries for The Child Guarantee: Phase III – “Testing the Child Guarantee in the EU Member States”, shows that UNICEF, together with the European Commission, considers Croatia a country where there is work to do, but also, where our work shows good results.  

Croatia has made great strides in the past decades in improving the lives of its youngest citizens. Great progress when it comes to legislation comes to mind; or expanding access to pre-school and preventing school dropout, etc. 

As child experts, we at UNICEF always see the glass half full. The issue in Croatia is not reaching out to majority of the children; the issue is reaching out to the most marginalized children (children with disabilities or developmental delays, children from minority groups, children with behavioral issues, children in institutions, or without a family, children who live in rural or isolated areas without adequate services) and creating equal opportunities for them.  Our job is to ensure that children regardless of who they are, who their parents are and where they live, have access to all their rights. 

Pandemics has changed our lives, how is the new normal affecting children? Unfortunately, some already serious problems were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Regina Castillo: Indeed, the pandemic has created a new normal. Children experienced virtual education for the first time in their lives, with little preparation or anticipation; parents had to become support teachers; teachers had to adapt their entire curricula to an education online.  Although Croatia has done an amazing job in keeping schools open during most of the pandemic (something that I am extremely grateful for as a parent of two children), it is important to acknowledge that children have become more isolated; have less contact with friends and family members. Mental health, protection of children online, participation of children and young people in more meaningful learning have become even more important during the pandemic.  

How much do Croatian people support and recognize what UNICEF is?  

Regina Castillo: People in Croatia are extremely generous and supportive of UNICEF. Croatia is among the top countries in the world with the most individuals per capita contributing to UNICEF's programmes on a regular basis.  UNICEF is grateful for that trust and at that same time tries to honor it by delivering concrete results for children. Change can only take place when you see it and we want visible, recognizable change for all children in Croatia, especially the most disadvantaged ones.

You live in Croatia for two years already, before that you have lived in New York, Switzerland, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru…, did Zagreb and Croatia surprise you in any way? 

Regina Castillo:  I am surprised, and I never take for granted, its beauty. I knew it was beautiful before coming but not to the extent I know now. Croatia is country that has it all, not only in terms of nature, but it terms of quality of life. After living in so many countries, I have learned to appreciate its safety, its open markets, its quality food, its kind and generous people. My family and friends tell me that I am a good promoter of Zagreb which in my view is one of the best places to live in Europe for its architecture, its rich cultural offering and its manageable size (not too big, not too small).  One of my favorite activities is to walk through the city and admire its beauty. I never get tired of it. 

You were born in Nicaragua, but you also have Spanish citizenship, which country do you consider your homeland?  

Regina Castillo: It is a complicated question because as the child of a Nicaraguan father and a Spanish mother, I grew up looking at both countries as my own. It even gets more complicated by the fact that I have been working for the United Nations for nearly 21 years now in different countries. In that journey, I have learned to appreciate every single country that has hosted me, and I always want to go back and visit so many dear friends! The hardest part of this life is always saying goodbye.  


© UNICEF, 2021 “The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.”