Thanks to their bold ambition to ensure a life free of any discrimination and intimidation for each and every child and to break down the cycle of disadvantage across generations, the EU's two new comprehensive initiatives on children's rights have been receiving positive reactions. However, there are concerns as to whether their implementation in the Member States will go as smoothly as hoped, an EESC hearing has found
On 31 May, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on The EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee, which took a closer look at the European Commission's two initiatives aiming to better protect all children.
The hearing brought together representatives of EU and international institutions as well as civil society organisations active in the field of children's rights, with the aim of discussing how the initiatives can be implemented and their goals achieved.
The EU initiatives on children's rights aim to build the best possible life for children, said Kinga Joó, rapporteur for the EESC's opinion on the topic, as she opened the event.
The Commission has given a signal for a change in this area. We want to see a qualitative leap with regard to children's rights, said Maria del Carmen Barrera Chamorro, co-rapporteur for the opinion.
The EU strategy on the rights of the child, covering action within the EU and globally, proposes concrete measures and specific recommendations to be undertaken by the Member States to improve the situation of children across the EU and globally on a number of fronts. It is focused on several priorities, such as participation in political and democratic life, child-friendly justice, combating violence, the digital and information society and socio-economic inclusion.
The strategy looks at children's rights in a wider scope, encompassing all polices that have an impact on them, said Valeria Setti, Commission Coordinator for the Rights of the Child.
The Commission reached out to more than 10 000 children, to make sure their views are reflected in the content of the strategy, challenging the perception that children are not mature enough to take decisions or reflect on matters that directly concern them, Ms Setti said.
Although 18.3% of the total EU population and one third of the world's population are children, their rights are often overlooked. Over 22% of children in the EU are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Worldwide, 9.6% of them are forced into child labour. They are often victims of violence, both offline and online, which is corroborated by some grim statistics: half of all children in the world suffer violence every year. In 2020, 33% of girls and 20% of boys experienced disturbing content online once a month.
The pandemic has not made the life of children any easier and it is highly likely that the challenges arising from it will be exacerbated for those from lower income households and disadvantaged backgrounds, the hearing found.
The crisis has also taken a heavy toll on their mental health, with 1 in 5 children reporting that they feel sad all the time.
There should be increased investment in access to mental health services, said Silvija Stanić from the Croatian Parents' Association Step by Step, adding that many school preventive programmes and services ceased to exist during the pandemic.
The use of support services for children is also related to their social and family background, with single parents and disadvantaged households making less use of such services and reporting higher percentages of unmet health needs, said Tadas Leončikas from Eurofound.
In his view, to counterbalance wealth differences, public policies should include a lifelong perspective, as there is evidence that better housing and education conditions lead to better outcomes later in life.
CHILD GUARANTEE – HELPING CHILDREN IN NEED TO PROSPER
To address the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable children, the EU strategy on the rights of the child will be complemented by the Child Guarantee, a flagship initiative of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
The Child Guarantee obliges Member States to draft national action plans for the period up to 2030, proposing specific measures for children in need, including for homeless children, those with disabilities or a migrant or minority racial background such as Roma, and children in alternative care or in a precarious family situation.
The measures should be geared towards guaranteeing free access for these disadvantaged groups to early childhood education and care, education and school-based activities, at least one healthy meal each school day, healthcare, healthy nutrition and adequate housing, with the goal of breaking down the cycle of poverty and social exclusion, which often spans across generations.
Almost one quarter of children in the EU are at risk of poverty and exclusion. This is something we aim to fight, not only with the European Child Guarantee but with other instruments outlined in the EPSR and the strategy for children's rights, said Jiri Svarc, head of unit at the Commission's DG EMPL.
The whole proposal is based on the premise that children in need require special attention on top of the existing measures put in place for the general population.
Special emphasis should be paid to children without parental care, especially those in institutional care who are among the most vulnerable, said Valérie Ceccherini from SOS Children's Villages International, stressing that it is vital to prioritise community- or family-based care and prepare those children for independent living once they reach adulthood.
To ensure that services to children in need are delivered in a coordinated manner, the Member States are obliged to nominate a national Child Guarantee coordinator.
It is important to ensure that Child Guarantee coordinators do not just have a reporting role. We want this person to have his or her doors open to civil society, said Katerina Nanou from Save the Children.
DELIVERING ON COMMITMENTS MADE
Although both EU initiatives received praise on account of their comprehensiveness, there are concerns about the implementation in Member States.
When we discuss implementation with our member organisations, there is a concern about the seriousness with which this is being taken by national governments. Some governments are very resistant to the children's rights discourse and do not take many cases as seriously as they should, said Eurochild's Jana Hainsworth.
Participants at the hearing said they hoped the obligation to implement national action plans for children's rights would bring fresh impetus and new accountability in this area. The EU Child Guarantee must have monitoring tools to ensure that it delivers on its commitments for the most vulnerable children and their families. It is also important to secure meaningful participation of both parents and children in the whole process.
To finance the measures, EU countries will be able to tap into the European Social Fund (ESF+) and other EU financing instruments such as the Resilience and Recovery Facility and InvestEU. Countries in which poverty or social exclusion are above the EU average have to earmark at least 5% of the ESF allocation to the Child Guarantee measures.
According to Pau Mari Klose, a member of the Spanish Parliament, the economic and social benefits from investing into children are manifold.
We have large amounts of evidence that investment in children pays off; there are mid-term and long-term returns on this, and skipping such an investment strategy would entail costs. Investing in early childhood education and care increases the contributions to society and economy one will make as an adult, Mr Klose said. He stressed that apart from financing the measures with the EU money, it is of the utmost importance that the Member States commit their own resources to these policies. Testing how the Child Guarantee measures could work in practice is already underway, of which the third phase – jointly implemented with UNICEF – is still ongoing.
The two-year pilot programme
Testing the Child Guarantee in the EU Member States will help develop the framework at EU level as well as the national actions plans to reduce child poverty and address systemic disadvantages for children in seven countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania and Spain, UNICEF's Aaron Greenberg told the hearing.
It is about shining a light on what works and what doesn't in this context. We are documenting what services and activities should be scaled up, Mr Greenberg said.
Annamária Pálmai, from the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, presented the programme Sure Start Children's Homes financed by the Hungarian state and the EU. It targets pregnant women living in difficult circumstances as well as infants and toddlers from disadvantaged homes.
The aim is to stimulate children's development, helping them to meet development milestones but also to help parents develop their parenting skills and encourage them to have a better vision of the future, said Ms Pálmai.
Concluding the event, Ms del Carmen Barrera Chamorro stressed the need for a holistic approach to children's rights in EU policy, with political and legal instruments properly coordinated at all levels and resulting from cooperation and consultation of civil society, including children.
This is the only way in which we can have comprehensive and specific measures that can be rapidly implemented in the Member States. An inclusive, cross-cutting and intersectional strategy will ensure equal opportunities for all children, whatever their circumstances, she maintained.