Even though Croatia is successful in the implementation of certain children’s rights, surveys, including those conducted by UNICEF, show that good averages often hide that there are children who are deprived of many rights and we, as a society, have to take special care of them.
UNICEF opened its Crisis Situations Office in 1991, and thus became the first international organization in Croatia that started its operations even before the official recognition of the country. 17 years ago, priority was to provide medicines, clothes, supplies for the youngest children, school supplies and psycho-social support.
When direct danger had passed, UNICEF focused on Mine Risk Education, Baby Friendly Hospitals, children’s rights education, support to foster care, support to parents in the first years of children’s lives, and many other initiatives.
Among the most effective initiatives were also the campaigns Ending Violence Against Children, Every Child Needs A Family and The First Three Years are Most Important! Initiatives and campaigns were initiated with the goal to make the society put children’s needs first.
Today, UNICEF is focused on the creation of partnership for children with the corporate sector, NGOs, state institutions, celebrities, experts and volunteers, with the idea to gather all people of good will interested in building a society where each child can achieve their full potential.
The purpose of activities of Government of the Republic of Croatia and UNICEF is to increase the quality of life of most vulnerable categories of children in Croatia, stated Valentina Otmačić, Head of UNICEF office in Croatia.
Priorities of UNICEF office in Croatia today are to provide support to most jeopardized groups of children, Baby Friendly Hospitals, preschool education, early intervention, care for prematurely born babies and support to breastfeeding.
Also, UNICEF‘s focus was placed on helping children in crisis situations, child protection from violence, child’s right to grow up in a family, justice for children, Child Friendly Cities initiative, children’s rights in the media and the corporate sector.
With the support from Croatian citizens and companies, UNICEF provides help for children in countries affected by the most difficult humanitarian crises, and we can boast with the fact that citizens are extremely conscious and always ready to help the youngest, in Croatia and beyond.
New challenges for children’s safety have appeared with the 21st century, and UNICEF is very active in improving digital literacy of children which, as Mrs Otmačić said, will be in focus of this organization for a long time. The same apply to climate changes.
Also, UNICEF encourages numerous studies about the living condition of children, what are the key problems in exercising children’s rights and where more needs to be done to improve the situation. Mrs Otmačić, who has a rich career in the field of education on human rights and work with children, youth and adults behind her, talked with us about these topics.
What are the key issues in exercising children’s rights in Croatia today?
In certain aspects of children’s rights, Croatia is very successful: we have low mortality rate in children under five years of age, extremely low rates of stunting due to inappropriate nutrition in the first years of life, percentage of children enrollment in elementary schools is almost 100%. On the other hand, surveys, including those conducted by UNICEF, show that good averages often hide inequalities, and that in Croatia, like in most countries, there are children who are deprived of numerous rights, and we as a society must take special care of them. For example, there are children with disabilities who, just like all other children, have the right to attend kindergarten. Children from poor families and children living in rural areas also don’t have the chance to attend preschool programs. In many places there is no kindergarten yet, or there is a kindergarten but it is available to the children due to its price or because parents are not employed. We also focus on children growing up in institutions, which is proven to damage their development. Our programs are focused on wellbeing and protection of every child, with special emphasis on the children who are marginalized for any reason whatsoever.
Which one of these problems is a priority in your new five-year program?
UNICEF is conducting programs in Croatia aimed at providing a long-term support for protection and exercising the rights of all children, especially most vulnerable categories. Making the public sensitive to certain topics – like the need and right of every child to live in a family, or the need to provide appropriate support to children who are victims, witnesses, but also to children perpetrators of criminal offenses, making the justice system tailored to children – these are some of the most important aspects of our work. Currently, our focus is placed on the Every Child Needs A Family campaign. This is a campaign that aims to increase the number of foster families, which will allow the children not to grow up in institutions. Family is important for development of every child, and if that child cannot grow up in a biological family, then it is important to have a sufficient number of quality foster families that would provide support, stability and warmth of home to a child.
How much have the challenges that societies, including their youngest members, are facing, changed in the 21st century? How much space do climate changes and cybersecurity take in your portfolio?
Major changes have a very strong influence on the children as well, and it is up to us adults to make sure that this influence is positive. We can use new technologies for the benefit of children, so, for example, we use them to enable children with complex communication issues to communicate with their environment with the help of special devices and programmes. Until now, these children were often “trapped” in their body, so this is a big step forward in their lives, and in our lives as well. When it comes to digital world, we try, through development of media literacy of the parents, educators, children and youth, to provide an opportunity for development of skills that will help them to cope better in it. Through Days of Media Literacy which we initiated last year in cooperation with the Agency for Electronic Media, we provided materials for work for foster parents and teachers, we published the first picture book about media literacy for the youngest children and a brochure for the parents. Children got the opportunity to visit media companies and learn how topics are chosen and how media content is created. We are happy about the fact that more than 6500 thousands children and young people took part in the first Days of Media Literacy. Media literacy is certainly a topic that will be in our focus for a long time.
Climate changes also have a significant effect on children, and it is of crucial importance that we adults care are about what kind of a plant we will leave to them. Globally, unfortunately, UNICEF frequently deals in consequences of climate changes. Big droughts, floods and strong storms devastate homes, schools and kindergartens. In situations like these, children are the most vulnerable category. This is why UNICEF is always among the first responders in the field for the youngest and their families. Thanks to good organization, we can react very quickly and provide humanitarian aid within 48 hours. Medicine, water purification tablets, rehydration salts are merely a part of what UNICEF packages contain. In crisis situations, it is important to provide a place where children can feel safe, play and learn. That’s what “School-in-a-Box” and “Kindergarten-in-a-Box” allow. These are packages that contain toys, educational materials, games and school supplies for the children. We used them in Croatia as well when the region was struck by catastrophic floods, and later on, during the refugee crisis. In that period, UNICEF provided a place where they could play care-free and forget about what surrounds them at least for a short while.
You’ve led the UNICEF team since 2014. Which campaigns you are especially proud of?
Each activity we conducted, which would change the life of even one child for the better, is a moment of immeasurable satisfaction. Each child that progresses, develops and gets opportunities for a better life, each decision in favour of the children, is a source of our pride. I would like to point out that I am especially proud of the wide circle of UNICEF supporters, people who participate in campaigns for children through donations or by volunteering. They really did deserve the name they have – Childhood Guardians – because they care for the most vulnerable children together with UNICEF. There are also many experts, companies and the media who join us and whom I also see as part of a wider team working for the children and their wellbeing.
Is there empathy in the Croatian society, among companies and individuals, for those who are vulnerable? How much support do you get?
Experience tells us that citizens are extremely aware and always ready to help the youngest, in Croatia and beyond. Croatian citizens were ready to help the families and children in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, and to refugees from Myanmar. Implementation of our activities would not be possible without the support from citizens and companies that placed the focus of their CSR activities precisely on children. We especially value the support from our Childhood Guardians, sponsors who support our work with regular monthly donations and allow us to regularly conduct our programs for boys and girls, as well as fast reaction in crisis situations like floods and refugee crisis, when we were in the field with the youngest and their families from the first day they came to Croatia.
Are you satisfied with cooperation with the Government? You recently started the establishment of the first human milk bank together. What will this change?
The Government of the Republic of Croatia and UNICEF plan and conduct programs for children as partners. In implementation of our programs we cooperate closely with the Ministry of Demographics, Family, Youth and Social Policy, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, as well as with other relevant bodies.
When it comes to the first human milk bank in Croatia, Ministry of Health recognized the establishment of human milk bank as one of the key investments in the wellbeing of the youngest children, and has included its establishment in its 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, and the plan is for the human milk bank to be established by the end of this year. In Croatia, annually, 2000 children in average are born premature, and 400 of them need intensive medical care. Mother’s milk is crucial for their survival and development. Human milk is both food and medicine for the preemies, and children who feed on mother’s milk are exposed to several times smaller risk from severe infections and development of long-term complications and their stay at the hospital is shorter. This is what we will provide for the youngest children in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and with the support from the citizens.
Over the past year, Republic of Croatia initiated major investments in construction and reconstruction of kindergartens in Croatia. How much will that help improve inequality in the approach to education at an early age?
Access to quality early upbringing and education is crucial for every child’s development. Today, in 146 municipalities in Croatia, little girls and boys don’t have a chance to go to kindergarten. Even where kindergartens exist, they are not available to every child. Will the child get the chance to go to kindergartens, that depends on whether their parents are employed, which part of Croatia it is growing up and whether the city or municipality they live in is rich or poor. Regional differences are significant, and European Union’s goal is to ensure that, by 2020, at least 95% of children attend kindergarten. When the children don’t have the opportunity to go to kindergarten, we deprive them of their right to develop their abilities, talents and skills in a modern manner. Here we need to pay special attention to vulnerable groups of children, like children from families with weaker socio-economic status, who are most often deprived of this right. I am certain that through joint and coordinated action, we can ensure that every child in Croatia has the opportunity to attend kindergarten, at least from the fourth year of their life.
8.Under the organization of UNICEF, the Museum of Illusions in Zagreb transforms into a Museum of Reality every year, thus bringing the reality of the most jeopardized children closer to us. How often do you reach for new technologies to shed light on the problems or make children’s lives more beautiful?
Museum of Reality is a project we are extremely proud of. Over the past three years, thousands of people visited the Museum of Reality. With virtual reality, experience rooms, holograms, optical illusions and installations, they experienced an interactive journey that brought often devastating realities of children in Croatia and the world closer to them. New technologies help us in projects like these, but also in implementation of the program, because very often, with the help of innovations and new technologies, we ensure that the help we provide is more effective, more comprehensive and more available. For example, at the moment UNICEF is testing the delivery of vaccines to rural, hard-to-reach areas with the help of drones. This type of delivery will be more favourable and simpler, and we will be able to deliver life-saving vaccines to a greater number of children.