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The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest of Dnevnik on the Radio Television of Serbia.

Childhood is one of the most beautiful periods when we are carefree and when we gain new bits of knowledge and skills through play, that will help us to become independent, adult people. Every child has the right to life, survival and development. Today is the International Day for Protection of Children, and I will talk about the position of children in Serbia with the Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić. We live in a specific time, there are many challenges. What has improved in the last year and what has gotten worse? How do you assess the position of children in Serbia?

- Within the Institution of the Protector of Citizens, there is a very elaborate system that deals with the protection of children's rights. The new Law on the Protector of Citizens, which came into force at the end of last year, gave even greater authority to the Protector of Citizens to monitor the position of children in the Republic of Serbia. This position of children in the Republic of Serbia is especially related to the period of expansion of the COVID-19, so to speak, when much research has been done. We have published a special report on that topic, with a special focus on the period of the state of emergency. Also, the Child Rights Centre conducted a very extensive survey, in which children spoke about what they were denied and about the consequences of certain difficulties – firstly regarding education, and then regarding their mutual communication, socialization, social contacts. In 70% of cases, they were dissatisfied with the way in which education functioned during the period of isolation. Also, with the impossibility of their mutual social communication. It is interesting that children saw wearing masks as something that disables their closer communication, non-verbal communication, and they were certainly dissatisfied with not being able to organize gatherings, because this social need is especially pronounced in children and the lack of it has caused certain consequences and their dissatisfaction. The only thing they presented as positive examples was the possibility to make more contact with their parents, and the other positive example was the possibility to be more involved in themselves, i.e., their own activities. However, this must be viewed from different perspectives. The fact that they were isolated, like all citizens of the Republic of Serbia, whether during the state of emergency or when it was recommended to reduce communication between citizens and thus among children, led to some consequences that we consider negative, by which I mean they had the opportunity to develop a form of communication by spending time on social networks, which we, as an institution, monitor very carefully, and which may give birth to many negative consequences.

How many of these requests, complaints and applications not related to the corona virus were sent in the past year? What did they refer to?

- As for the protection of children's rights and complaints on that basis, there has never been less than 9-10 percent of them, except during the state of emergency. It is also important that we find out about 10% of the cases from the media. During the state of emergency, such cases were multiplied, there were many more of them, especially when it comes to children with special needs who were prevented from performing many activities by such an organization of society, not to mention the most important ones, such as the possibility of adequate treatment, care...

You say you find out from the media. What does that mean? That children do not talk to you. Why? How do you interpret that?

- Do not get me wrong, when I say 10 percent is from the media, it means that in 90 percent of the cases, citizens address us directly.

What is the health and social protection of children like? Is it on a satisfactory level, so to speak? What are the obstacles there?

- It cannot be generalized, it depends on each case, but health care is far better than social care. We have seen many cases that have attracted public attention, in which social protection has failed. In what sense did it fail? It failed in the sense that when a problem arises in a family where children live, the centres for social work must absolutely see this and react very quickly. That reaction speed is the most important.

Are you satisfied with the cooperation between the competent institutions? Should it be better?

- It should be better, but again, this also cannot be generalized.

What is the weakest link there?

- The weakest link is the connectedness of all institutions in one chain of monitoring when a problem arises in a family. This is not only the job of the Centre for Social Work, but often also of the police and health workers, but primarily of the centres for social work. I do not blame the centres for social work here. So, what does this lack of connectedness practically mean? That these procedures take a long time and then often end badly or even tragically. What we insist on and what we have pointed out the most, is the speed of reaction and constant monitoring.

As far as education is concerned, what is the coverage of children? Somewhere statistics show that about 70-80 percent of Roma children are outside the education system... It seems to me that children from the margins actually have the biggest problem.

- Not just children from the margins. The biggest problem is the Roma female population, more precisely girls, which in the Roma population are provided education only to a certain level. They are rarely educated in high schools, due to the system and tradition. When I say system, I mean the system and the way of life within the community, the tradition of that population, and special attention must be paid to that. Everyone says education, no one says education and upbringing. For example, during COVID-19, children noticed as one of the most important shortcomings that schools did not organize gatherings where experts would explain to them how to defend themselves from the stress caused by the whole situation, not only their own but everyone else’s. But primarily, children must be protected.

Violence, neglect, property, social differences... All this burdens the childhood of our children. How much are we, adults and the whole society aware of that as a whole and are we responsible enough?

- Again, the question of connectedness of the whole society arises. So, we can't look at that partially, we can't look at the parents and the school separately, but we must look at everything in correlation. When we talk about the situation where children are not motivated for education, our Institution is dealing with this now and we will probably come out soon with a project, which is related to the motivation of children for education.

Why they are unmotivated?

- Because the content they most often receive through social networks promotes a completely different way of life.

That is our responsibility. Is that a message for the end on this day and what are the priorities, the main tasks for us all?

- What we praise is a true effort of the state to increase the birth rate. In the whole community, not only ours, but at the level of Europe and even the world, this negative natural increase is the future and it is very important for us to see that part through. But it is also important for us to monitor the education and upbringing of children because it often happens, and we know that very well as an institution, that children in this period, to say so colloquially, become lost. If you lose them during that period, you will never catch up to them again and then you have a big, big problem with that population.

Of course, family first and then the whole society. Thank you so much.