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NO 91-92

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INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE 2 > Helsinki Charter No. 91-92 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 91-92

January - February 2006



By Slobodanka Ast

Official statistics say that over 200.000 children in this country live in extreme poverty

In freezing cold, a regular police patrol found some wretched girls actually living in a manhole, in our midst, in the Center of Belgrade. The media were "surprised and shocked", the cameras arrived, the children were taken care of and, as it usually happens here, only three days after the horrible story from the underworld was all forgotten.

In this town and in this country, child poverty is obvious at every step, and the moving media story is also a specific illustration of our overall hypocrisy. Little beggars swarmed around the subways connecting Terazije square and Balkanska st. for months on end until someone "discovered" that the street was where they lived, sniffing glue on the sidewalk. Our citizens, as well as authorities on duty apparently find it normal that seven and eight-year olds should smoke and beg, sleeping on concrete in the center of the capital, next to the glass-paneled multicolored windows of "Benetton" and displayed sequined gowns of the indestructible "Verica Rakocevic". Another window in a row boasted a carpet from a faraway, exotic country, with a price tag spelling an astronomic price, the number of knots and a note "hand made by children"! The thing considered unacceptable by the entire world - a shop, a department store or a designer who admitted to using "child labor" would be ostracized by business as well as consumer circles - is here presented as a differentia specifica, a special value.

We often repeat that we are "apart from the rest of the world", as if we took pride in that. Aren't we one of a few countries that failed to react to the hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims, including at least 50 thousand children? What sort of a people are we, and what kind of a country we live in? It seems that we have lost all sense of empathy for the sufferings and hardships of others.

How much do we care for the youngest, especially those from geographic and social margins?

According to official statistics, over 200 thousand children suffer from extreme poverty, and another 400 thousand live in families without sufficient funds for their normal development. Knowing that children in Serbia and Montenegro today number about two million, we arrive at a gloomy conclusion that almost a third of them lack the conditions for normal development and happy childhood. Two thirds of child population are not enrolled in pre-school institutions and kindergartens, and as many as 95 per cent of those under seven years of age are excluded from educational activities of any kind. A large percentage of children, almost 12 per cent, do not attend school at all, and most of them invoke financial problems.

With the assistance of UNICEF a comprehensive study has been elaborated, a "herbarium of child poverty" in our country. UNICEF experts discussed poverty with the children themselves. Their testimonies are moving:

"We eat meat only on our patron saint's day", says a girl from Kragujevac.

"Even the teacher calls me 'You little refugee'.", says an embittered girl from Bosnia.

"When we go to see a doctor, we the Roma, have to wait until all others have been attended to... We are examined by the doctor the last. The doctors and nurses often shout at us... humiliate us... I'd rather lose all my teeth than go and see a doctor again!," says an older Romany boy.

Poverty has many faces. Children and their parents (several hundred households were surveyed) do not describe their poverty only in terms of the money they lack, they also speak of educational, social, health, geographic and cultural scarcity.

Poverty in its extreme forms was not so widespread and obvious until the "years of the denouement". The dramatic events that followed, the disintegration of the SFRY, wars, isolation of the country, economic sanctions, inflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons and, finally, the 1999 bombing, caused a surge of poverty, a dramatic drop of the GNP and the standard of living and mass unemployment.

"New pauperization" resulting from the transition and unemployment added another layer to the already existing poverty.

The poorest among the poor children, are the refugees, Romanies and the handicapped; precisely the groups that seem to lack the society's understanding the most: nurseries for Roma children are closing - something even numerous foreign donors proved insufficiently responsive to - and even the very few ones for handicapped children.

STRATEGY AND OBLIVION: In the autumn of 2002, the government headed by Dr. Zoran Djindic initiated a unique project - a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Serbia. Let us recall that Gordana Matkovic, the minister for social welfare at the time, successfully completed this task. The project provided not only important economic indicators, but also a multidimensional overall picture. Next autumn (2003) the Government adopted the project as part of a wider strategy to join European integration and global development trends.

Meanwhile, the political currents in Serbia were changed and the problem dropped out of focus of the new authorities, a coalition of the former opposition and Milosevic's government. The gap between those who have and those who have not grew increasingly wider. The social elite in Serbia now comprises the 300 wealthiest citizens who amassed their wealth during the "ten bloody years". Members of the former nomenclature and its networks (business associates, party fellows, family and friends) during the early 1990s managed to secure for themselves two thirds of elite entrepreneurial positions, more than in any other post-socialist country. This top of the social ladder retained the enormous wealth acquired during the times of wars, sanctions and international isolation, and even continued increasing its capital after the downfall of Milosevic's regime. The authorities calmly watched the arrogance of the new economic potentates, their insatiety and obvious violation of all moral as well as legal norms. It was not before Karic interfered in politics and rattled Kostunica government that the authorities set out to deal with him "legalistically".

The direct consequence of "society's destruction" in Serbia during the 1990s is the continuing and accelerated impoverishment of the majority of the population on the other pole.

THE MAJOR LOSERS: The story of impoverished children should be completed with that of the youth that paid the largest price at the time of the disastrous social crises, wars and uncertainties.

The young are the largest losers of the disastrous social developments of the past decade and a half. The chapter on youth is today essentially reduced to a clear strategy of emigration. Work and, more generally, life ambitions of the urban as well as rural youth have to do with going abroad... Is it surprising that over half of the young, in the cities and the country, covered by the research of the Institute of Sociology of the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy contemplate going abroad for a longer period of time (in practice this usually means for good)? Their life and work aspirations are to leave Serbia and its gloomy reality behind. This piece of information, more than any other, indicates that the Serbian society does not seem to be overcoming its stagnation, revealing not a hint of change that would give the youth some hope that they might soon be able to earn their living here "like normal people do", and so the unfortunate reality continues.

Serbia holds the inglorious European record: the highest rate of unemployment among the youth under the age of 30. This fact should be viewed within a wider social context: two million unemployed, a million jobseekers. According to the official data as many as 200 thousand workers receive no pay, 40 thousand are redundant. In textile industry about 140 thousand workers took less than 50 euro per month throughout the past year. The entire social product in 2003 amounted to a mere 52 per cent of what Serbia had in 1990. Meanwhile production has dropped by 3 per cent.

In view of fact that the most recent surge of emigration comprises the most vital and most educated part of the entire population, it is high time to articulate a strategy aimed at improving the position of the young, their future work and generally life chances.

Any normal government and normal parliament would place on its agenda the issue of the young - starting from child poverty to the dramatic exodus of the young - as a matter of priority. But not our political establishment. They took longer to discuss the rights of a handful of the Hague indictees and their families than the rights of hundreds of thousands of poor children and dwelt on their privileges more than on the reform of education and the thousands of young graduates leaving the country.

We are left to live our lives in a dreary landscape of a battle aftermath. Once normal people came in power, those who want their country to be a decent, European state, instead of only trying to grab something for themselves or their party, or take revenge on their political opponents, the young will be given a hope that they could work and live in this country as normal people do elsewhere in the world.


NO 91-92

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