Making social protection fit for children

As a child, I never had to go to bed hungry because my family could not afford to buy dinner. A few times, I felt ashamed comparing myself to my class-mates, or lonely and isolated because of hurtful comments friends made about me, or that I made about them. Has any of this ever happened to you as a child? Do you remember how you felt? If you or your parents had needed help, would you have known where to go?

Today, UNICEF is releasing a new report on the situation of children in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Even in a region and countries that have reached relatively high levels of economic and social development, some groups of children are still living in poor households, deprived of basic necessities, excluded from services, communities and societies.

Children are uniquely affected by lack of resources and by social exclusion, as research from around the world has confirmed. Children, therefore, stand to benefit the most from programmes that seek to ensure access to minimum living standards and services, enable a caring and inclusive family and social environment, and help manage and overcome shocks. The mix of these factors is known as social protection.

A mother feeding her 2 year old.
© UNICEF/CEECIS2013P-0347/PirozziVirginia, 2, lives with her mother Nicolinka and sister in a Roma community in Shumen, Northern Bulgaria. They receive support from UNICEF assisted family centre.

Social protection policies and programmes, through a set of reforms and increased investments, could help countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia fight the unfairness of child poverty and deprivation, reduce disparities between children and ultimately, help children  and the countries they live in achieve their full potential.

The full report provides evidence-based findings and detailed policy recommendations. You can skim through this summary, while sipping your coffee, or glance at this very short version on your phone.

Today, I would like to let the voices of children and parents in the region tell us what it means to experience poverty and social exclusion, and what they think about the support that social protection benefits and services can, and do, provide.

I’ve never been on an excursion. It’s too expensive. I would like to go (adolescent girl, recipient of social assistance, Montenegro).

My daughter studies in the sixth grade, and she was asked in a school questionnaire: What is your mum’s salary? She felt ashamed to write ‘20 thousand’ so she wrote ‘200 thousand’ (parent from Kazakhstan).

To address poverty and social exclusion, countries in the report’s region are developing their social protection systems. But these systems are not always able to reach the most marginalized and those who most need assistance. What type of barriers do families with children face in accessing social protection?

We know that a lot of documents need to be done to apply; you have to go several times to the centre. The costs are very high and we can’t cover them; we don’t have enough money to pay for the documents, transport, etc. (unemployed father of two children, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

I wasn’t receiving my child allowance for half a year, even though I was entitled. They saw I had a car, a house, a shop, so they said I didn’t qualify. And then a man came to my shop by accident and told me I could exercise this right. He saw in the “Official Gazette” that single parents were entitled to receive child allowance no matter what. The CSW was supposed to pay for care at home. I wasn’t informed, didn’t get the information on time. So, it’s all about information. The thing is we don’t know our rights (father, recipient of social assistance, Bosnia and Herzegovina).

When support is provided, either in the form of cash assistance or social support services, what do children and families think about it, and how do they use it?

We go to a grocery store as soon as the money arrives. Even the children know that it is the day when the money comes and they join us to visit the store. We give back what we borrowed, we buy grocery and sometimes we may afford to buy sweet things for kids (parent, Kazakhstan).

My daughter attends a school for children with disabilities although her disability is only physical. She has to travel for medical treatment. I sent 22 requests for help with the medical treatment and I got only two responses that they could not help me. They could not provide a wheelchair. I don’t have money. She needs shoes that cost €100. I have to pay for that (mother, recipient of social assistance, Montenegro).

A nurse holding a baby while mom looks on.
UNICEF/UNI154609/PIROZZIJelena is a community nurse in Croatia. She is visiting a family Kozari Bok, a district of Zagreb. UNICEF cooperates with the Ministry of Health in the training of community nurses that work with young children and their parents.

A number of countries in the region have already taken very positive steps to reform their social protection benefits and services. In Georgia, for instance, based on analysis by UNICEF partnering with the World Bank, a new child benefit plan was introduced in 2015, reaching approximately 260,000 children from the poorest households nationwide. Projections suggest that the number of children living in extreme poverty will fall by 50,000 as a result. Building on these positive developments, in today’s report, UNICEF makes a number of recommendations to governments and partners on how to make social protection systems more sensitive and effective for children. For children and parents, what would a good social protection system look like in practice?

I was given all of the information at the Centre for Social Work. I was given a printed document where everything I need was written down. It was neat and understandable and I was told that when I have the documents I should come (single mother, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

To have an office available where I can go to when I have a problem for individual or group counselling, to have an educational plan made for me, to understand what they want to tell me, to know what I have to do in life if I can’t make certain decisions with my parents’ help (adolescent, high school student, Romania).

Read more about UNICEF’s work on social protection for children here. Help us spread the message: Invest in social protection for children = Invest in a better future for your country!

Elena Gaia is a Policy Analysis Specialist for Social and Economic Policy, based at the UNICEF Regional Office for CEE/CIS.

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