UNICEF Representative to Azerbaijan: This has been a rapid modernization of the way Azerbaijan protects its children - INTERVIEW

Azerbaijan still has a very high misbalance to a number of boys compared to a number of girls
© Report

Baku. 27 August. REPORT.AZ/  Interview of Report News Agency with the Representative of UNICEF to Azerbaijan, Mr. Edward Carwardine.

- This year Azerbaijan and UNICEF celebrate 25 years of cooperation. If look back, how would you assess this long road of mutual cooperation?

- I think, for children it has been a successful 25 years. I think, if we look back to the situation with children a quarter of century ago, clearly, at that time, Azerbaijan was going through very troubled times because of conflict and UNICEF’s first role here was to provide emergency assistance to children who were affected by the fightings. But we moved forward in many ways since then. Obviously, today Azerbaijan is in much more stable and much more prosperous situation. And we have seen, it has been reflected on the situation with children. The level of poverty, affecting families and children has fallen dramatically in the last of 25 years.

Some of the diseases that were responsible for the sickness and death of children 25 years, like polio, no longer exist in Azerbaijan. Even malaria has been eventually eliminated and that’s because of investment made into healthcare and vaccination programs and so on.

At the primary school level, nearly every child is able to attend school now, getting good quality education. We’ve seen advances in legislation in protecting children’s rights. For example, the introduction of legislation to make iodization of salt universal which has a big impact on children’s health. Marriage legislation – which brought the age of marriage for boys and girls equal. This clearly had an impact in protecting, especially, girls' rights. So, I think, overall, we’ve seen really big attention to the rights of the children and fundamental change in a way children are supported in the society. Good example of it is 25 years ago children who were left by parents were often living in institutions. Now, we see more and more children coming out of institutions and kept more in the society. This has been a rapid modernization of the way Azerbaijan protects its children. We’ve been very pleased at UNICEF to be part of that process.

- What projects did UNICEF Baku office conduct during this year which ones are expected?

- I would give a couple of key examples. I think, the area where we are particularly pleased to see the increase of attention is the area related to children with disabilities. We continue our work to promote inclusive education. The president, as you know, introduced the new state program on inclusive education at the end of 2017. That creates a framework for more investment on inclusive schools. Hopefully, now we will see more children with disabilities educated but also the continuation of work with teachers on development of curriculum. We’ve been working a lot on detection of disability, so, enabling healthcare workers to be able to identify very early in a child any sign of disability or developmental problem. We’ve seen an increased number of disabilities that were identified early thanks to these investments. That’s important, because if you know that a child has a disability early, or has a developmental challenge early, you can enable a plan to support that child, and also to reduce the impact of that disability on the child’s abilities.

We’ve launched at the end of last year a new program in support of youth, particularly the pilot program in Binagady and Mingachevir. We now have seen different agencies and government to provide different packages of services like life skills to learn about self-confidence, leadership, health education programs for young people. There have been works by different agencies on the issues like vocational training with all being delivered by these youth houses so the people could walk-in and get all services in one place, that’s an exciting innovation that we’ve seen this year.

The other new program that I am excited about is what we called early childhood development program. You may know that for number of years we were supporting school preparedness. This is one year program for 5-year old children that helps them prepare for school when they become 6-years old. And more than two-thirds of 5-years old children are now enrolled within these school preparedness classes that are very successful. I’ve met with many parents who’ve really seen difference in their children and their ability to learn, their questioning, which means they can be very much more confident when they start school, so that’s been a good start. Now we are moving down the ages. We have started a program in about fifty communities so far, looking for four and three years old children, with a shorter program with few hours every week with their parents in separate parts of schools where they get the really first taste of learning. But more importantly they learn social skills how to interact with other children. The parents are learning skills on how they can help their children in mental and physical development when they go back home where they can continue that learning by playing and interaction with children. The sooner they develop these skills, the sooner we will stimulate their brain, the way the interact, the want they think. It stays with them throughout their life. This is new in Azerbaijan. I think, this could really be a very good investment that will continue through generation after generation.

Another piece of work we are looking at this year is the nutrition sector. Again, looking back the 25 years, the situation in children’s health and nutrition gone better but there are still some issues that we need look more and more closely. One is how we support mothers in nutrition of their newborn children. The latest data that have been released shows that Azerbaijan is still got work to do to increase the level of breastfeeding in the country. But the other area which is important is how we tackle the issue of anemia. This has biggest impact on women’s health but also on their baby’s health as well. Having anemia means that a child is born with low weight which has an impact on their development and health. Very simple way to tackle this is by introducing iron into the food supply. And we know from around the world that the most effective way is by introducing iron into flour. Azerbaijan doesn’t have a national program at the moment for flour fortification yet. The government wants to do it. The Ministry of Health and parliament are very supportive and we hope this year that would help the government to develop legislation that makes mandatory requirement to have iron supplements in the flour. One of little known facts on flour supplementation is that the health benefits can be seen within one year after program has started. So, if we manage to start the program by the end of 2018, a year after we will see the big reduction in anemia.

The final area that I will draw attention to is quite comprehensive and really looking on how we support families who are still vulnerable. Again, in the country the economical generation has really improved, we had a little crisis in 2015, but there is a clear vision now to move forward and we have really seen improvement going on. But we know that there are still families that found life difficult. Sometimes these are families where one of parents has gone or living on low income, living in rural areas or isolated. And we know that children from those families suffer difficulties. So, our work in that area is how we can develop with the government social worker programs, how we can develop basic social packages that vulnerable families can benefit through those social workers, how we can direct those families to the benefits that already available but they may not know about them, and how the country can monitor the situation with those families and adjust the program to the needs of those families. There are no real social workers in Azerbaijan, we think this is a critical gap in the current system. I know that the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is very enthusiastic on having qualified social workers in the community looking after vulnerable families and we already started to train the social workers and develop the number of packages to test them in various districts throughout the country and if we are successful together with the government I think we will see major improvement in the types of supports that available to those families who still find life difficult. And we at UNICEF feel that one of the ways to ensure that sustainable progress is by making sure that the most vulnerable families are able to support themselves in the future. If you can help the family in difficulty early on, give them the ability to care about themselves better, that would carry on to the next generation, because the children after they grow up they would be able to care about themselves. But you need to start with these vulnerable families today so it would produce a sustainable benefits for the whole country.

- How would you characterize the situation with child protection worldwide, in general, and in Azerbaijan, in particular?

- I think it varies from country to country. There are countries where children’s rights are not fully respected and we only have to look at some conflicts in the world to see that children are the first victims and repeatedly suffer from the consequences that adults take. I think, we feel globally at UNICEF that we can always do more to protect children and we have to keep making case that children rights are fundamental and it is critically important to peace and social cohesion and development. I think, in Azerbaijan, as I said, clearly there is a lot of progress and improvement. I have been here in Azerbaijan for two years and I’ve spoken to many people over the last two years. The people understand the importance of investing into children and protecting them. But we need to be sure that the systems are there and the legislation is there and the accountability is there. I think that there is a general desire to do that.

I think, if we look at the situation with girls, there is still a little bit more works need to be done. Azerbaijan still has a very high misbalance to a number of boys compared to a number of girls. Unfortunately, that means that some girls have been created but not been born. That speaks a lot about social attitude towards girls. This is a part of our work this year is to work the campaigns to work with the public in order to increase the understanding of girls’ rights and appreciation of the values the girls bring to the society not just as mothers of women that took care of families but as also teachers, engineers, politicians, decision makers. Girls have so much to contribute to society. And we running this year a campaign with AFFA which is really helping to identify girls and young women from Azerbaijan who are making a huge contribution in arts, society, sports. By speaking that we are sending the message that girls are valuable and sometimes even more valuable than boys.

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