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NO 117-118

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INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE 2 > Helsinki Charter No. 117-118 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 117-118

March - April 2008

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By Slobodanka Ast

We run into them all the time - at crossings, in underground passages, along roads.Some would like to wipe our windshields, others sell this or that, most just beg money. Even those little guys of five or six know how to hold out their hands and say sadly, "Give a coin, give me for bread." Some give them some change, dispassionately and not even looking at them, but for the most those children are invisible. And while in all the media political parties stage ruthless election campaign for Kosovo in Serbia or for both Kosovo and accession to the EU, while some tell fairy tales about kindergartens for all children their parties will secure and threat no one would dare sack Roma (!) once they come to power, no one even gives a thought to the epidemic of misery and poverty in this society. A radio jingle tries to attract attention to those children growing up in the street and probably have never seen a doctor, and messages, "Just a little good will would change things for the better." Actually, we need very, very much good will.

HERBARIUM OF MISERY: Your author has already written for the Charter about child poverty in Serbia and official statistics saying that some 200,000 children are very poor while another 400,000 come from the families that cannot afford their normal development. The fact that there are about two million children in Serbia leads to a bleak conclusion that one-third of them are deprived of the opportunity for normal growth and happy childhood. Thanks to UNICEF a comprehensive study of child poverty in Serbia, a "herbarium of child misery" was publicized. Two-thirds of children do not go to any pre-school institution or kindergarten, and as many as 95 percent of children under seven are not included in any form of education. Almost 12 percent of children do go to school at all. Most say this is because of financial problems.

Poverty has many faces. In many surveys children from social margin and their parents speak of insufficient funds for bare necessities of life. They are discriminated in the domains of education, social protection and healthcare. The poorest among the poor are child refugees, children with disabilities and, above all, Roma children. The children that grow up in the street and seem to be invisible to this society. The exact number of Roma children is unknown, the same as the exact number of Roma population: official statistics range between 200,000 to 800,000 people! The figures depend on needs and wishful contexts...

ROMA DAY: The media and officials remember them on ceremonial occasions, like on the recent occasion of the World Day of Roma. They take pictures of those pretty, smudgy, disheveled and smiling kids in cardigans too large for them and in someone else's shoes. Broadcasters air picturesque Romany music and dances, and an editor or two find it proper to present their audiences some "black wave" reportage about the life in "cardboard cities," under a bridge, surrounded by piles of garbage and "secondary raw material" where the great majority of Roma live without drinking water and sewages.Under the arches of the Gazelle Bridge, just by the glass towers of the Hyatt Hotel and the Delta headquarters.

The Roma Day was the occasion for us to learn that Vojislav Kostunica's outgoing "technical" cabinet would set aside 500 million dinars for the improvement of Roma position and also build several tens of apartments for them. Up to now, the government was subsidizing Roma with 120 million, which was far from adequate.

Once the World Day of Roma was over, the bleak pictures of their life were again veiled by disinterestedness. Not by coincidence only, our government and the media hush up the huge assistance the European Union gives to Serbia in many areas, including the improvement of the life of Roma. Not long ago, OECD invested considerable funds and enthusiasm to capacitate special Roma assistance for the work in schools. The project was sporadically praised as a worthy one. That was an attempt to make it easier for the street children to integrate into educational system rather than, like before, predestined to special schools and special classes.

Besides, OECD was intent to help all the children in Serbia - to help them through a double-check of the level of their knowledge. Unfortunately, as years go by their knowledge is poorer and poorer, and in this regard Serbia is below the European average. However, no one seemed to be much bothered by the findings of the PISA test. This society seems not to care about the young, their future, accumulated problems of the educational system and, finally, about the brain drain. Minister of Education Zoran Loncar will probably go down in history as a minister unconcerned the most with his portfolio but the one who, like a cloned apparatchik, missed no opportunity to stammeringly reiterate the Premier's variations on the topic "Kosovo is Serbia."

CAUSE OF DEATH: The UNICEF study on the health of Roma children in Serbia revealed alarming information about the health of this population and the incredible indolence of relevant institutions. Unfortunately, even the media - preoccupied with political clashes, combinatorics, rumors and scandals of all sorts - are disinterested in such topics. And the findings are chilling indeed. One in five Roma children in Serbia has poor health. The death rate of Roma children under five years of age is three times bigger than in other children population. Should this trend continue till 2015, 30 percent of Roma kids will die before they turn five.

What is it they suffer from? UNICEF study pedantically shows that one-third of Roma children suffer from diarrhea, asthma and pulmonary infection, skin deceases and various chronic illnesses. One-half of Roma children have not been inoculated for childhood deceases. The study also reveals an interesting information about as many as 93 percent of Roma babies being born in hospitals, 85 percent of them receiving DTP vaccine and immunization against polio, but only 9 percent of those infants get all the necessary vaccines in the first 18 months of life. Yet another of our missed civilizational chances: the children registered from the beginning by the healthcare system are left to oblivion and the street.

A little Roma boy, an aspiring first-grader, said in an interview that a school nurse had sent him home to take a bath before medical examination because he had "stunk up the whole ward." He never showed up again - either in the out-patient ward or in the school. Roma generally complain of medical staff's rude attitude towards them. Often doctors see then only once they have examined other patients.

LOOK AT THE CHARTER: UNICEF analysts conclude that poverty is the main cause of Roma children's poor health: surveys showed that 90 percent of Roma population take themselves very poor and almost one half of them admit they are chronically hungry. A hungry child can be hardly attentive in school, let alone be a good student. Almost one in five Roma children is with mental disability: chronic undernourishment and bad living conditions affect their physical and mental development.

As of 2005 the European Union has been endeavoring not to allow the Decade of Roma in this area, a noble plan, to gradually turn into a catchy slogan. The EU has raised the amount of funds available to the projects that would improve the health of Roma children: vaccination programs, mobile clinics, various educational programs. The European Union also finances the projects against discrimination of Roma and promotes their human and minority rights.

Our politicians invoking the UN Charter lately - of course, in relation to Kosovo - should better take a look at the UN Convention on the Rights of Children demanding the UN member-states to secure to all children the rights to equal opportunities, healthcare and social protection, social justice and life without discrimination.

In the fall of 2002 the cabinet of Dr. Zoran Djindjic launched a unique project - a strategy for reduction of poverty in Serbia, lead by Dr. Gordana Matkovic, the then minister of social issues and, by general consent, probably the most productive member of the cabinet. The project resulted not only in major economic indicators but also in a multidimensional picture. In the fall of 2003 the government adopted the project a part of a larger developmental strategy. It was meant to be a major segment of our EU-oriented integration efforts and global developmental trends.

After almost tectonic changes at Serbia's political scene, the problem was no longer in the government's focus. This unfortunately relates to accession to the EU as well. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen. No one and not even those crying demagogical slogans about their concern for the young, the old and those at social margins at the top of their lungs at election campaign rallies believes in them.

RACISM IN THE PARLIAMENT: The problems plaguing Roma have been neglected even by their own representatives in the parliament, let alone by other MPs. The breaking news in the media was that the Union of Roma wants the famous footballer, Dragan Djajic, presently imprisoned for investigation, to top its electoral ticket. For Roma parties and the media the news story was by far more important than the fact that the Constitutional Court of Serbia ruled that electoral tickets should be supported by at least 10,000 signatures instead of 3,000 as prescribed by the Republican Electoral Commission. Obviously, the Constitution providing that "the attained level of human and minority rights shall not be decreased" has been ignored.

Serbia's parliamentary annals have recorded a racist statement by the MP of the Democratic Party of Serbia, Marko Jaksic. In his polemic with Vladan Batic, MP of the Democratic Christian Party, Jaksic told Batic that he had "a gypsy mentality." When the parliamentary speaker warned Jaksic he apologized to members of Romany people explaining he "referred to a Gypsy as a trait of Mr. Batic's character."

The parliament has not deprived Jaksic of his mandate - something that would have been the only just reaction to his racism. Jaksic remained this party's time-tested official in high offices and Serbia's representative in the negotiations on Kosovo status.

Neither politicians nor the media strongly reacted at the incident by the mayor of Topola, Dragan Jovanovic, who officially message to his townsfolk that they need not to worry: the future Roma settlement, Torovi, would be surrounded by barbed wire so that local Roma would not walk down the Rade Blagojevic Street.

Behavior of Dragan Jovanovic, a member of the New Serbia party, is actually a paradigm of the new wave of violence and hate speech overflowing the public scene from top to bottom over the past months. There is a rising tide of intolerance to "others" at macro-social plan. It could be said that the atmosphere of lynch is being incited. As if the "populists" and our overall elite are not bothered at all by overt racism in the parliament, the crudest populism and false patriotism. The absence of political culture at the public scene seems to turn into a welcome characteristic. To all appearances, sociologist Ratko Bozovic is right when saying that our society makes progress in regression.


NO 117-118

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