We have been talking during the recent weeks about the measures we can take to ensure that the evolution of society is sustainable and that the progress we are making will ensure a dignified life for each of us. Today we turn our attention to one of the most important aspects when it comes to how we build our future – our children.
The topic of this discussion is not accidental, as December 10 is Human Rights Day. Rights that every child must enjoy. Reality shows us, however, that often children cannot fully enjoy their fundamental rights. We, as a society, fail to ensure the most basic living conditions and, with them, a good start in the life of the next generation, and this failure produces costs both in the short term and especially in the long term.
What does the childhood of many children in Romania look like?
All the problems that children face concern each of us. First of all, because none of the traumas these children are going through is their fault and they couldn’t do anything to avoid them. And secondly, because we often end up in situations where children suffer because of our lack of action. And when it comes to the traumas that children go through, the list can be extremely long, starting with the tens of thousands of children who go to bed hungry every night and up to the nearly 50,000 children in the state protective system, which have been waiting for solutions for years.
Over 4 million children live in Romania. A recent analysis by World Vision reveals that more than half of children who drop out of school do so because their parents cannot afford to support their education. 10% of children sometimes or always go to bed hungry and 8% of minors say they do not have a caretaker for them when they are sick. Moreover, 80% of the children included in the aforementioned study say that they have to work daily in the household or take care of family members. All these figures outline a sad picture of how many of Romania’s children, especially those in rural areas, live every day. Beyond them and this major drama are huge costs, which we pay and will pay for a long time to come.
These costs translate into dropping out of school and low quality of life, exposure to violence and abuse, high risk of human trafficking. The lack of a basic level of education will have devastating effects on the lives of those children who have to leave the education system due to lack of financial needs, the most important being the difficulty of integration into the labor market, which in turn creates a spiral of helplessness, frustrations and disappointments that can hardly be broken. We sacrifice, therefore, generation after generation, just because we do not have the courage or skill to implement a series of solutions that could essentially support all these children. Fortunately, the good news is that we have begun to take steps in this direction. One of the most important is the adoption of the law that provides a minimum of social services to children in vulnerable communities and their families. But we still have a lot of work to do until we can completely solve all the problems that Romania’s children face. We need support programs for families, we need to make sure that every child is provided with basic needs, from proper nutrition to health care and access to education.
Children with children – pregnancies among teenagers
Another particularly important aspect when it comes to protecting children is the number of girls who become mothers before the age of 18. Basically, they are children with children, and instead of preventing these situations and supporting mothers when such things happen, we choose to blame them and accuse them of things that we have also failed to do well and efficient.
Data published by Eurostat and quoted by Save the Children place Romania in first place among underage mothers in Europe, revealing that approximately 23% of mothers under the age of 18 were living in Romania in 2019. The same organization shows that only 2% of these girls received public social assistance services. All these figures should be a wake-up call and lead us to take steps to protect the lives and health of both mothers and their children.
Pregnancy and childbirth before the age of adulthood involve a number of risks for both mother and child. Pregnant girls face early school leaving and illiteracy, poverty, the risk of abuse or human trafficking. On the other hand, children whose mothers are under the age of 18 are also at risk, which can range from issues in the growing process to the risk of abandonment.
Beyond all these situations that involve social costs, the phenomenon of births among adolescents involves a number of economic costs that impact, like all the others we have discussed so far, the society as a whole. Specifically, they translate into medical and social services. On the other hand, indirect costs are much higher and they arise from the risk situations set out above.
A number of studies show that the United States bears an annual cost of $9.1 billion for teenage births. Moreover, another document showed that if the number of childbirths in the United States had not decreased by 30% between 1991 and 2002, the number of children living in poverty would have been 460,000 higher.
And in this case, as in all the others we have discussed so far, all this money could be used to cover other needs, if we really managed to heal this wound of society. Undoubtedly, childbirth among minors is a flagrant violation of human rights and this situation must be corrected as soon as possible.
The solutions are at our fingertips and are, first and foremost, about education. I know, the subject of sex education is extremely controversial, but while we are “discussing” what to call it and its curriculum, far too many girls are losing their childhood and youth precisely because we have not been able to be responsible adults, to be with them and offer them the support it was our duty to offer. Last but not least, no matter how much we want to prevent such situations, it is important to have solutions for things that can no longer change. Integrated support services for adolescents who have already become mothers are essential so that they can continue their age-appropriate activities – go to school, get a job and reach their full potential without jeopardizing their development and the physical or mental integrity of the child.
Caring for children – beyond just family responsibility
Another key point of our society, when it comes to protecting children, is the foster care system. Almost 50,000 children are currently living in the protective system. An important part of them are sheltered in large residential centers, improperly called orphanages, centers that only cover their basic needs for survival. Thus, these children, who often leave the centers at the age of adulthood, wake up to the challenges of every day without having the necessary training to face life. This is how the state loses money again through these centers and, at the same time, robs the chance of a better future of many children who are lost for lack of love and attention they need.
Alternatives to this situation exist, and their benefits are not only human and social, but also financial. A comparative study shows that the residential protection system, i.e. large residential centers have the highest costs of all existing protection measures, being even three times higher than the costs associated with protection measures in family-type services. Closing large residential centers would thus solve two problems and bring major benefits to both children and each of us, at the community and society level.
We are therefore discussing the protection and promotion of children’s rights so that every child can enjoy childhood and have every chance of a harmonious development. Everyone deserves to reach their true potential, to become an active citizen, to fully contribute to the smooth running of society as a whole. In addition, we note that addressing these issues, which often fall between public and political agendas, can also bring major financial benefits, complementing efforts to ensure a strong, stable and sustainable economy. It is about smart investments, which could be capitalized efficiently and which would bring us much closer to real results. Change will not be made only by a politician or government, change is us, each of us.