Climate change, rapid urbanization, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, protracted conflict and humanitarian crises, forced displacement, digitalization and multi-dimensional and inter-generational poverty are changing childhood rapidly
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). “Since its adoption, the most ratified Convention in the world has inspired countries to change laws and policies and make greater investments in the wellbeing of children. The number of stunted children under 5 years of age dropped by over 100 million. The number of children missing out on primary school has been reduced by almost 40%. The practice of child marriages has decreased by 15% and better systems have been put in place to protect children from violence and exploitation. More children exercise their right to participate and even lead change. The rise of digital and mobile technology and other innovations have made it easier and more efficient to deliver critical services in hard-to reach communities and to expand opportunities, including for girls”, says Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Representative in Serbia.
The world is different now than three decades ago. What are the challenges the children of today are facing?
— Climate change, rapid urbanization, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, protracted conflict and humanitarian crises, forced displacement, digitalization and multidimensional and inter-generational poverty are changing childhood rapidly. Today, as temperatures increase and water become scarcer, it is children who are impacted the most. 15,000 children under 5 still die every day, mostly from treatable diseases and other preventable causes, while at the same time we are facing an alarming rise in overweight children. The number of countries experiencing conflict is the highest it has ever been since the adoption of the CRC. 75 million children and young people have migrated across borders or been displaced. Whilst the numbers of children in school are higher than ever, the challenge of achieving quality education and acquiring skills relevant for the changing market needs is not being met. The digital divide is often deepening existing inequalities and has also a gender dimension. The time spent online is growing shaping relationships and interactions, creating new opportunities but also demanding for urgent development of critical thinking an online protection. Mental health is a growing concern amongst adolescents and violence still persists in different settings.
How is UNICEF using innovation to accelerate solutions for new challenges?
— UNICEF has a long history of experimenting and using innovation. Partnerships are key. For us innovation is about taking emerging approaches and tools and testing how they can be applied across contexts. If successful, we scale them to accelerate results. UNICEF has already successfully implemented drone corridors that are delivering vaccines to children living in settlements in non-accessible areas and we are leveraging data science to predict the spread of epidemics in South America and Africa, by gathering data from different sources and using machine learning to do the actual mapping. Nowadays, we are working on “magic box”, combining satellite imagery and machine learning to map every school in the world and show their connectivity in real time. The data generated will help identify where the gaps and information needs are, serve as evidence when advocating for connectivity and help governments optimising their education systems. It will also allow us to measure vulnerabilities and strengthen emergency response and resilience against natural disasters and crises. UNICEF is also collaborating with Microsoft and the University of Cambridge to develop a ‘learning passport’ – a digital platform that will facilitate learning opportunities for children and young people within and across borders. The learning passport is being tested and piloted in countries hosting refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons. We are now eagerly awaiting applications from Serbia teams for our global UNICEF Innovation Fund call. We hope to map and understand what kind of frontier technologies and ideas can be developed to address new educational challenges. Absolutely exciting work! But beyond technology, the key to our innovation efforts is identifying and designing solutions that directly involve the children and young people. Human centered design has always played a central role in UNICEF work.
How does UNICEF empower children and youth to know and claim their rights?
— Participation is both a right and a process. UNICEF works systematically to convene and engage young people in decision-making; in their schools and communities to influence legislation, policies and services and more and more online. In Serbia, UNICEF has worked with adolescents as part of the consultative process in the drafting of the new National strategy on violence against children, on the SDG agenda and ensured their full participation in the Voluntary National Review that the Government of Serbia presented this year. Moreover, hundreds of young people from all over Serbia are engaged within the framework of the regional Dialogue for the Future programme, implemented with other UN agencies and government partners, to strengthen trust and peace across the region. Through UNICEF Youth Challenge, we are bringing together bright young minds to solve problems in their communities – I am always amazed by their creativity! Hope we will be able to partner with the young Serbia diaspora abroad to circulate even more ideas and talk more about “brain gain” than “brain drain” in the future. We are currently establishing and piloting the online U-Report platform that allows adolescents to express their opinions on issues that matter to them. More than 1 in 3 children globally are thought to be regular users of the internet and a digital footprint composed of thousands of pieces of data is accumulating around them. The era of ‘big data’ has the potential to transform – for the better – the provision of efficient, personalized and responsive services to children, but it also has potential negative impacts on their safety, privacy, autonomy and future life choices. The challenge facing us all today is to ensure that we design systems that maximize the positive benefits of big data and artificial intelligence, while preserving privacy, providing protections from harm and empowering people – including children – to exercise their rights. And we are beginning to see action: governments are strengthening regulatory frameworks; private sector providers are recognizing their role, and educators are thinking about how to equip children with the tools to navigate the online world safely and participate responsibly. It is a start.
UNICEF has a long history of collaboration with the business sector globally? How does it look like in Serbia?
— UNICEF has an over 50-year long history of partnering with the private sector and is accelerating this agenda in order to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We are partnering with companies with common shared values, that lend their ideas, resources and innovation to the vital cause of improving and serving children lives. UNICEF also advises businesses on their approaches to children rights and the impact they can make on children, from the promotion of preschooling to parenting, from the overall engagement of employees to social and environmental impact analysis… Business people today know that doing good is a good business, and their engagement for the cause of children is growing. In Serbia, our partnerships with the business sector are a source of inspiration and we are proud that Serbia has been chosen as one of the few countries in the world to model a UNICEF’s new initiative “Business for Results”. This initiative should help expand UNICEF’s engagement with the business sector, but also aggregators such as multistakeholder platforms and industry bodies, business leaders as influencers and/or philanthropists, and corporate foundations. This approach includes focusing on the critical links between the business and the public sector, including exploration of public-private partnerships for social services and innovative financing. UNICEF needs accelerators and works with companies across the board of their activities – their products and services, their business operations, and their foundations. Our collaboration with Nordeus, Telenor and other companies, as well as with the Chamber of Commerce of Serbia and other business associations and networks will help move together and faster results for children and young people in line with both the SDGs agenda and the EU accession process.
Violence is one of the challenges that persists and evolves. How’s UNICEF responding to violence against children and adolescents?
— Violence against children is a complex social phenomenon in terms of its drivers, its causes, forms and manifestations. As such it needs to be addressed comprehensively and set as one of the key priorities in national policies. Data indicate that violence against children in Serbia is widespread. For instance, the number of cases involving a child victim of family violence reported to centres for social work in 2018 was 7,741, which is 19% more than in 2015; while the number of peer violence reported cases reached 1,727 in 2018 . UNICEF is working with all relevant national and municipal actors to support the strengthening of systems’ capacities for violence prevention and also for timely and effective response when violence occurs. Concretely, we support the improvement of policies and regulations as well as their implementation, by helping centres for social work, health care institutions, schools, judicial professionals and the police to act in a synchronised and timely manner. Our activities also include monitoring to better understand the problem on the ground, which will help to formulate further response. With an aim to comprehensively address prevention of violence against children, UNICEF puts also specific focus on social norms and values, better understanding of parenting skills and child disciplining.