Child rights' situation in the Czech Republic

Over the past ten years the United Nations Children's Fund has been involved in a number of projects aimed at securing full implementation of child rights in the Czech Republic. Last week Mrs. Marty Rajandran UNICEF project officer for Central and Eastern Europe, visited the Czech Republic to assess the outcome of these projects and outline areas that still require attention. Daniela Lazarova met with her to find out what has improved over the past ten years and what still remains a problem for children in the Czech Republic. Mrs Rajandran began by explaining why UNICEF plans to wind up all of its projects in the Czech Republic by 2003.

"We are pleased to say that the Czech Republic has actually surpassed UNICEF criteria for UNICEF programme support in the country. The government has made outstanding efforts in reducing infant mortality , under five mortality, even maternal mortality. There is high immunization coverage. We found that over thirty five percent of infants are being breast fed which is a very good standard. Most kids are attending and completing basic education . A high number of children are attending pre-schools. These are all excellent steps to a good start in life for all children."

So what are the problem areas? What still requires attention?

"For example: iodine deficiency disorder. Unfortunately, information that has come to our notice indicates that this is still a problem in the Czech Republic. At one point all salt was reported to be iodized and now this region of the world has the lowest level of iodine consumption through salt in the whole world. We really think it is a challenge that the government could address through legislation on iodized salt. That's one of the easier tasks, but there are more difficult challenges. We understand there are fifteen to twenty thousand children living in state care institutions. We have seen some of these institutions in the last couple of days and we have seen the government taking steps to turn them into a "family environment". However the real challenge is to help children stay with their families so we would really urge that much more effort be directed into various forms of prevention and the different types of family and community support mechanisms that are needed to keep the family together. I think in terms of violence against children it is important that every child knows what their rights are, that they know how to protect themselves, that they know when to say "no". And children at the youngest age need to be told that they have these rights to protect themselves from violence. Further, the government needs to ensure equal opportunity for all children, including the Roma minority . We know that many Roma children are not even completing basic education and we feel that much more effort is possible to ensure that the Roma children also benefit from all the different programs that the government offers the children of the Czech Republic. Finally, we would say that there should be continued vigilance and information sharing on issues that effect young people. Information that we have indicates that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases among the young is high , there are risk factors to the HIV AIDS virus spreading . Although the numbers are low right now young people need to have the information. They need to have youth friendly services where they can get confidential information and support during the times that they need help."

A great deal has been said in this country about child prostitution -do you have any knowledge about that sphere -is it truly a serious problem?

"You know, actual statistics are not possible in this area but we are right now supporting a project with the NGO La Strada and they are preparing a data base for their web site and also information that can be used by NGOs or people concerned about the subject -teachers, police officers etc. on how to counsel, how to I think there is a recognition of the problem but it is one of those areas you can't just go and collect statistics on."

Still, do you feel that the government is doing enough in this field?

"Well, we know that the government does have a national plan of action against commercial sexual exploitation of children and so this is one positive step but I think it is important that young people themselves know what the risk indicators are. Especially young women who may find themselves trafficked unknowingly, whether it is a job offer or something that looks very nice on the surface but they don't really know what the end result could be. So I think it is really important that more information go out and perhaps in different forms, maybe drama and theatre and music and things that young people listen to in order to help them understand that there are many advantages out there but that one has to go in with open eyes and understand what the situation is. I think this is one of the areas in which NGOs can be very helpful. This is important information for school kids but even more for kids who have dropped out of school because these are the children who may not have many opportunities....there are many reasons why at different levels of government people want to be more vigilant but also to be supportive . We have to ask ourselves why young people fall into this problem and what are the ways to help them."

These are all problems that the Czech Republic will have to tackle on its own in the future , but the Czech branch of UNICEF will continue to be operational and to help children elsewhere in the world. What are the priorities for 2003?

"Coming out of the World Summit for Children is a document called a World Fit For Children which actually lists global goals that we hope all governments will look at carefully and decide which of these goals need to be met in their own country. We hope they will prepare a national plan of action to address these goals and in the next five years there will be another report to assess the progress made. UNICEF has selected out of that list of activities 5 main priority areas for global attention by UNICEF. One is HIV-AIDS prevention with a focus on support for AIDS orphans. A second area is prevention of exploitation and abuse of children -this covers the area of sexual exploitation, abuse , children deprived of parental care, children in conflict with the law, children deprived of liberty. The aim is to find family based or family focused outcomes for children, not to put children in institutions but to keep them in a family environment and to support those families. A third area is what we call immunization plus - in other words striving to ensure that all children in the world are protected against preventable diseases. We are close to polio eradication so this is a big challenge in the coming year. Vitamin A deficiency is a problem in many countries and so this continues to be a priority . A fourth area is girls' education. As we know globally most of the children who are not in school are girls and so within the whole area of "education for all" we are focusing on girls education. And, lastly, we have what we call "integrated early childhood development and care" which is a package of services and programs to promote a healthy start in life for all children. This is good pre-natal care for the mother, the mother's nutrition so that she can deliver a healthy child, care for the child at birth through the baby friendly hospital network , breastfeeding promotion, prevention of iodine deficiency disorder so that mental development is possible for all children and then such things as parental training. How to be the best possible parent , how to stimulate your child, how to raise your child, which in many countries is still a challenge, to be quite frank. With all the stresses of everyday life sometimes parents are not spending as much time with their kids as they need to, especially at the youngest age which is when the most rapid development takes place. And of course abuse and neglect start even at infancy so we support counseling services, sibling training and other activities that would help to ensure that each child gets everything that it needs to go onto the next level, which is schooling and its own development in life. "