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Axar.az presents the interview with Edward Carwardine, UNICEF Representative to the Republic of Azerbaijan:
– How do you define equity for children?
– For UNICEF, equity is about ensuring the most vulnerable children are prioritized in terms of investments, in terms of services, in terms of support. Because while in Azerbaijan there has been considerable progress for children generally across the last 20 years there are also still children who I think are left behind. So, for us, the argument is that sometimes you have to invest more in those children who have been left behind to bring them up to the same level of development as other children in society. So it is about prioritizing the needs of most vulnerable children in any society.
– What personally do you think you have achieved since being in charge of UNICEF?
– I don`t think it's ever about me as an individual. So, let me talk more about what I think we as an organization have achieved. Because the work we do is through an excellent team of staff and most of them, almost all of them, are Azerbaijani. And through our partners, they work really very hard to develop and deliver these programs for children.
For example, the school readiness program - I am very excited about the fact that in just a few years it reached more than 75% of 5 year - olds. And I know that it`s working because I have talked to parents whose children went through that program, who are now attending year-grade 1 in school and then they say they see how excited their kids are, how their kids are learning more effectively, how their kids are behaving while in the class. Because they have had one year of preparation. So I think that it`s clearly a success that we are very proud of.
I think also of the work we are doing improving nutrition of children – we are training more and more midwives., and frontline health workers who are very close to families. It is going to have a big impact on the health of children. Then there is the early childhood development program which is a relatively new concept in Azerbaijan. This is providing an integrated package of support for families who have children who are 2, 3 or 4 years old. It looks at everything from their nutrition, their early learning and also how parents can help their children`s early brain development through play or interacting in different ways with their children. This is something just starting now; we have developed about 50 centers around the country to support parents and families in their communities. I think this will start to pick up more speed in the next year and it could really have a long-term impact on the future of children in this country. Because we know that if you invest in children in this way at that age, they do better at school, their education achievements are higher, they are healthier, their social interaction and their emotional behavior is much better, and also it has a big impact on social development more broadly. And that is an exciting opportunity.
And the work we have been doing with young people, introducing the first life-skills program for the young people in this country, it's being tested at the moment and hopefully will expand again to different districts around the country. That`s helping young people look at their leadership skills, conflict-resolution skills, how they deal with personal conflicts, their confidence-building skills, which I think is particularly important for young women in any country, and these are soft skills that will help them when they are looking for jobs, seeking employment – so in addition to technical skills they may have some soft skills which we know from experience is very beneficial. So, I think there’s a whole range of things that we have been doing in the last few years I am proud of.
– How would you describe the state of children in Azerbaijan today?
– I think that it has improved a lot in the last 20 years. Like the child mortality rate, the number of children who die before their 5th birthday. This has reduced considerably in the last 20 years. We see nearly all children of primary school age attending school. Immunization rates – I know we are going to talk about it later – but they are high, over 95% of children have been fully immunized. We have eradicated diseases like Polio in Azerbaijan. I think overall things are much better for children than at the time of independence. But now we have to ensure that every child gets the same benefit from this progress. And so, we are identifying those children who we feel are still left behind - children with disabilities, to some extent girls and young women, children from the rural areas, young people who don`t possess the skills and the knowledge they need to compete in the job market - so there are segments of the child population who still need support. They are from vulnerable families, from poor families and so on. And that is the priority for our program, in a general context where has been positive progress for children in the last 20 years.
– What is the status of immunization in the country and which major diseases threaten children's health?
– Well again, because the immunization rate now generally is very high, we don`t see diseases common among young children in some of the least developed countries. We don`t see big outbreaks of Measles, we have eradicated Polio and so on.
But there are people now are pushing against vaccination in some countries. And it is dangerous. So, it important that we maintain public knowledge and public awareness of the importance of vaccinations. We are happy that we kept some very serious diseases out of Azerbaijan for a long time. But we need to be sure we keep working with families and parents.
– How effective is UNICEF's activities in Azerbaijan?
– We are as effective as we can be today. What I mean by that is that we are committed to be as effective as we possibly can. I think we are seeing results from the work we do here. And it is not our work alone. We work with our government partners, with civil society, communities. I think the answer to your question goes back to our joint successes. Things like preschool education, now more than 75 percent of 5-year olds are attending this 1-year program to prepare them for school at the age of six. Something that UNICEF supported for several years ago and is now the flagship program of government education in terms of preschool education. We talked about work that has been done to reduce child diseases. We are now investing much more in the social services the vulnerable children need access too. We have new social worker programs - the first ever social work program for children being developed now in 3 pilot districts around the country. We developed the first legal aid services for vulnerable families and children in 10 districts in the last couple of years. We are seeing big reforms in the juvenile justice system - training of judges, training of lawyers to make sure that children of are protected within the legal system. We have been developing inclusive education for children with disabilities, this is a slow and complex process, but we now have the State Program for Inclusive Education makes it a requirement that children with disabilities should be educated in regular schools with other children. So, I am seeing results from the work that we are doing but clearly, we want to do more. And we should be doing more. We will always be looking for the ways to do it more effectively.
– What kind of future do you see for children in this country?
– Generally, a very positive future. This is a country which has great potential and presents great opportunity for its children and young people. Young people make up about a third of the population. So, they are going to be an incredibly important part of the future. I think there is a positive future that is waiting for young people of this country. The benefits from that future will depend on decisions we make today. So that does mean investing in the best possible start for children.
– About protection of children rights and involvement of children to work in early ages, does Azerbaijan legislation comply with international standards? What plans UNICEF has with Azerbaijani government in this direction?
–There are two things to say about this. The first one is the legislation. Yes, the government has ratified a number of international conventions and adopted legislation to be in line with international standards. So, the legislative framework is there to prevent child labor, particularly the hazardous, the most exploitative forms of child labor. But of course, legislation is only as effective as when it is implemented. I think one of the challenges we have in Azerbaijan is that there isn`t any reliable data on the number of children who have to work. And I think this is the first step to be taken, to really understand how prevalent, how widespread the issue of child labor is. I think from my experiences traveling around the country I don`t think there are a large number of children working on the streets or working in businesses, in dangerous conditions or exploitative conditions. But not seeing it, doesn`t mean it's not there. The first step needed is the proper assessment of how many children are working. I think it’s also important to be clear about the context. Children around the world often do some work. I worked as a kid. I had a part-time job when I was at school. Children work in family businesses sometimes. We know children do things in their spare time to earn a little bit of money. It's not necessarily bad for them. What is bad us when a child has no choice, but to work. Which means that they cannot go to school. It's bad when a child is clearly at a risk because of the type of work they do. Or they are being exploited, being taken advantage of, being put at risk of harm. That`s the type of child labor we have to be most concerned about. But we need to be much more aware of what happens in the community. And that means proper research, proper data collection.
– After the suicide of Elina you told "Including the organization that I lead, we all should do more things to increase the possibilities of protection and support of sensitive children". The suicide happened approximately 7 month ago. During this time what steps have you taken in this direction?
– Well, we made a commitment, I made a personal commitment to ensure the we paid more attention to the issues that often affect young people, when they go through difficulties in their lives. And we have done some work in that direction. So, we have been working with the Ministry of Education to now train what are called “school friends”. These are trained individuals within schools who can better identify children who maybe going through some difficulties in their lives and provide them support. And there are several hundred people who are being trained through that program. And we are also adapting our life skills program for young people, so it can be delivered to secondary school students with increased focus on stress management and emotional behaviors. So little by little, we are trying to support the environment in schools. We have developed new materials with the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs to help parents and others identify signs a child might be suffering from bullying at school. This is available now through the website of the State Committee. And during the summer we tested these materials with groups of young people attending summer camps. And the plan now is to develop a mobile outreach program that goes to every district to provide children and young people with this information. We are currently working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population to try and expand a national helpline for children. It is currently run by a local NGO, but we are working now with the Ministry to see how the government can expand this hotline with more staff and resources. So, we are really trying to improve a range of systems and services in place for children. But still, it is a small step. But I think it is not about UNICEF alone or government alone, this is an issue we all have responsibility for – parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, youth workers, community leaders … all of us have a responsibility to look for signs that a child might be at risk and step in to offer support and assistance and not remain silent or look the other way.
– During your travels as head of UNICEF, has a child said something that you’ll never forget?
– I hear nice things a lot. Let me tell you something about Azerbaijan. When I hear people say – “this is something new for us, this is something we did not have before”. Actually, in Ganja and in Agjabadi I have recently been in this situation. In Agjabadi there was a mother with a daughter with Downs Syndrome. And she was coming to a center we were working with, and she was meeting other mothers, sharing experiences, learning from each other. And she told me that she never had this before, not since her daughter was born - and she was now 4 or 5 years old. In Ganja I met a single mother bringing up 2 boys. And the boys were having some difficulties with school. You know, getting into trouble a little. And as single mother, she was facing a lot of pressure but now was being supported by social workers. And she said pretty much the same thing to me - "I never had this support before, there wasn’t anyone I could go to, no one I could talk to". And her kids were getting some support from a psychologist and she never had access to this support before. That to me was very positive. Because if we can change these families' life for the better that's something to be happy about.
– What was the funniest and saddest thing happened to you during your working period at UNICEF?
– The saddest thing I saw was for the first time watching a child die in front of me. It was a long time ago in Africa. I was talking to the families, learning a little bit about the families' situation. And the child of one of the families who has being held by his grandmother died from starvation while I was talking to them. That was probably the saddest thing. It also made me very angry, that in a modern world a child could still die from something as basic as a lack of food. That maybe is why so many years later I still work for UNICEF. It was the saddest thing but at the same time it inspired me and motivated me to do what I do today.
As for funny? I would not say funny, I would say happy things. I see happy things every day. I love going to districts of Azerbaijan, I like seeing kids, I love meeting young people who have great dreams and hopes for the future and want to be part of the society.
One of the things I will never forget was actually in Afghanistan. In 2002 when the schools were being reopened for girls. I remember watching for the first time after many years, watching the official ceremony where the first primary school girls came into the school hall. I remember seeing grown men crying as they watched their girls coming to school. I remember asking my colleagues - why so much emotion? And one of my colleagues said ‘because we never thought we would see this in our lives again. Girls coming back into the school, this has changed our lives’. One simple act of a girl walking back into the classroom was a very happy moment for me. Sometimes it is not about big policies, big programs. It is something as simple as training a teacher, giving a child a notebook, a pen and a classroom they can sit in. They walk in, they learn. And the future suddenly is filled with hope again.
2019.10.09 / 13:39