The children are not safe, neither in their schools, nor after they leave the school yard

Interview with Dragi Zmijanac - Director & Founder of the First Children’s Embassy in the World Megjashi

Newspaper VEST, Saturday’s issue - May 7, 2016

The children are not safe, neither in their schools, nor after they leave the school yard.

A four year old child forgotten and locked in a kindergarten, parents protesting against the violent behavior of a student - are the two cases which brought up the subject of children’s safety in their schools and outside. How to protect themselves from the aggressive behavior of their schoolmates; does the system provide programs and solutions for this problem - explains Dragi Zmijnac, the President/ CEO of the First Children’s Embassy in the World Megjashi.


1. According to your knowledge and research how, safe are the children in kindergartens and schools?


We, at the First Children’s Embassy in the World - Megjashi are concerned about the security and safety of the children in schools. There are violent events taking place almost daily in some of the schools, children and parents fear for their safety. Although the situation with the safety of the children in kindergartens is slightly better, the teaching staff and management of the kindergartens must show maximum alertness and increased mobility.

What is also worrisome, especially in primary and secondary schools, is the occurrence of peer violence. Any form of unwanted and aggressive behavior in schools, which does not stop there, but continues to follow the children in their homes jeopardizes their safety. Very often, the school fights are transferred onto the street. Nowadays, kids are not safe in schools or on the streets after leaving the schoolyard.

It is important to acknowledge that the schools should be working with the students on prevention as the most effective form of action against child abuse. Also, it is crucial to openly and directly address the emergence of violent behavior in children to the parents in a timely manner, whether it occurs in a verbal or physical form, in order for them to take action towards educating and correcting the children, by suggesting the most effective pedagogical methods to them. This also means that the current problems would not be pushed aside by leaving them to be resolved by the educators alone. Apart from schools, working on prevention of violence must be happening in the domestic environment at the same time, where children adopt the initial forms of social communication. The relationship among the child, parent and teacher is crucial, and it needs to be strong and built on a foundation of trust that will produce solutions to potentially occurring problems.


2. Last week, there was a case of a 4 year old being forgotten and locked by the pre-school teachers in a toilet in a kindergarten in Vlae. This week, the parents whose children attend the primary school "Dimitar Pop Georigiev Berovski" protested against the violent behavior of a classmate. How should parents protect their children in such cases?


The public was horrified and can still not recover from the case of a nanny beating the 9-month-old baby, and then again we see a case of carelessness, neglect and abuse. The case of physical abuse of the 9-month-old baby and the video that the parents released in the public upon a police recommendation exposed another dilemma that parents need to face before they leave their children to somebody - how safe are their children? Our recommendation as the First Children’s Embassy in the World - Megjashi is to use the kindergarten’s services, to make a strong push to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy to expand the childcare capacities for all children in the kindergartens, to ensure the caregiving quality and highlight the importance and significance of the role of educators in caring and educating the children. However, the educators must dedicated, responsible and care for children with love and attention. The younger the children are, the greater the importance of love, safety and security is for them. I believe that what happened in the kindergarten in Vlae is an incident that will not reflect negatively on many preschool educators who we already know work with great love and commitment with children in the kindergartens. Our commitment is also to take the kindergarten services on to a higher level. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy should have strict criteria in the selection and recruitment of teachers in kindergartens. They should be supervised by the MLSP and parents should always have insight into the quality of service delivery to their children.


3. Are there systemic measures and do the social services act in relation to these issues?

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy should take all measures within their jurisdiction, so that such and similar cases of child neglect in kindergartens are not repeated, as well as initiate a system of protection, determine guilt and responsibility and take appropriate measures for monitoring, supervision and sanctions if necessary. Children should be a priority of all state institutions and always have in mind that they must work in the best interest of the children. A liability in case of violation of a child and its rights should always be determined and that is the responsibility of each institution that cares for children.

4. Very often in schools there are children who behave violently for some reason, but the cases are concealed because of the persuasion they would not be solved?


We should not be silent about violence. The First Children's Embassy in the World - Megjashi encourages children to report violence on our SOS helpline for children and youth - 0800 1 2222. It is necessary to speak out about violence and abuse of children. The consequences of violence are very serious for the child's development. Fear, shame, insecurity, low self-esteem, lack of confidence in institutional protection and lack of information about services that should provide help and support - are often the reasons why children are silent, they would rather tolerate the violence and rarely speak about it. Unfortunately, the schools often hide cases of violence and try not to come out in public with the information about the fights, believing that in this way they protect the school's reputation. However, The Children's Embassy SOS helpline for children and youth - 0800 1 2222 provides a secure, reliable, anonymous and free SOS phone line, service, chat and a meeting face to face if necessary to the children who are victims of violence or suffer from abuse. This children's SOS phone line is an important way to help and support the children. The Children's Embassy responds to all anonymous reports and further addresses the issues to the institutions by requiring undertaking of measures and procedures if any child's right is being violated.


5. Are there enough psychologists in the schools to work with these children, is one psychologist enough for 300 children?

All primary schools should be completed with professional staff such as a psychologist, pedagogue, social worker, sociologist and speech therapist. This is also our recommendation to the Committee on the Rights of the Child at the UN in Geneva addressed through the Alternative report on the condition of the rights of the child in Macedonia. Of course, to ensure full attention and a mobile state in monitoring the situation of children, while directing equal dedication on education and development, it is necessary for the psychologist and pedagogue to have an individual approach toward every single child. For this reason, we believe that the schools need more psychologists and pedagogues working with the children. Otherwise, it is impossible for every child to be approached in a quality manner if there is only one psychologist and pedagogues per 300 children. Of course, the cooperation with the expert team is significantly important, and for that reason it would be really beneficial if the team expands. It is particularly important to maintain contact with the Centers for Social Work, in cases when certain schools have no social workers. The role of the social worker at the school is to successfully indicate a student who lives in a family that is at risk or dysfunctional family, so that the psychological-pedagogical service could be alarmed on time and will react and prevent accordingly.

6. What are the common problems faced by children in the early years education?

That would be children who are not included in kindergarten as a result of poverty, drastic class difference, which creates a strong polarization and a ground for discrimination itself. Many of today's children who can’t enjoy the kindergarten services may face potential problems in the future growth and development, especially at early school age. A few problems that these children can face if they haven’t been visiting a kindergarten, is a possible emotional and social emptiness, lack of acceptance of differences and difficulties in socialization. On the other hand, other problems may occur that don't derive directly from children with low social status or from their personality traits, but rather from the school system itself. Also, forcing children to attend and participate in various activities without putting an emphasis on quality and discipline. The child is being burdened with a variety of subjects, which puts more emphasis on reproducing the learned content, being calm and adapted, rather than building the children's critical thinking and attitude by truly delving into the content offered in a stimulating environment.


7. How should they be protected?

One of the basic understandings of the Children's Embassy Megjashi is that children are least protected where they should be most protected (at home, in school, in other institutions that are responsible for ensuring smooth realization of children's rights). The general conclusion is that children do not have the courage to report violence. They are scared and feel powerless. Mostly, the child victims are afraid to report their parents or loved ones as being violent, because it jeopardizes their future, security and they believe it is better to be constantly exposed to the domestic violence than to become a victim of an institutional deadlock. It is good for the children to know that they are only a phone call away from the needed help and support, by dialing the free SOS phone number for children and youth - 0800 1 2222. Children and young people can call this number about any problem they are facing. Every contact and every problem is taken and considered seriously, and the callers know they will be heard, understood and supported in order to find appropriate solution to their problems.


8. What kind of activities does the Children's Embassy Megjashi have in terms of responsible parenthood?

Megjashi continues with the campaign for encouraging responsible parenthood. Namely, after we announced a few slogans several years ago, known among the citizens as “Have you hugged your child today?”, “Have you told your child how much you love him/her?”, and “Have you talked to your child today?” we plan on continuing the campaign with the slogan “Me and my parents can do so much together”. In the meantime, there is a petition signing going on, with which we are asking for the citizen’s support in creating a favorable environment for the participation of parents in schools and kindergartens, which would further encourage responsible parenting. Our goal is to create conditions for active, positive and responsible parenthood. By gaining the support for this petition, the citizens will help us establish the National Council of Parents. This will enable greater participation of parents and encourage them to take action for certain decisions concerning children, which would increase their accountability in the decision-making process and policy creating that mainly affect children.

Within this activity, it is not only the importance of responsible parenthood that is being stressed, but we are also shining light on the corporal punishment as a form of physical abuse.


9. What do the programs for responsible parenthood in marriage and after divorce cover?

A group of parents contacted the Children's Embassy Megjashi requesting amendments to the Law on Family and introduction of joint and responsible parenthood after the divorce. The Children's Embassy Megjashi supported this initiative of the citizens, acknowledging that the children have the right and deserve quality and responsible parenting after the divorce of their parents.

A child should never be put in a situation to choose between parents. Divorce should be a termination of the marriage, not a termination of parenting. It is important for the child to know that both parents made the decision to divorce and he/she is not to blame for that situation. Given that this situation brings up many questions for the child, the children need to be informed about the situation in an acceptable way for their age and their level of maturity, by placing their needs as priority and always paying attention to the children's emotions. The agreement on joint execution of parental rights means that the children's parents agree that the parental rights and obligations will be performed jointly and based on a mutual agreement. This approach involves strengthening of the quality and establishing equal communication between the parents and children in order to reduce and prevent occurrence of traumatic emotions in children after the separation of the parents.


10. Macedonia is part of the refugee crisis. Many children come to the borders daily and stay there for months. Does the Children's Embassy Megjashi work with these children?

The Children’s Embassy Megjashi in collaboration with SOS Children’s Village, works at the transit center Tabanovce with refugee children affected by war, by providing them with psycho-social help and support. Our psychologists work there with the children through interactive art workshops where they have the opportunity to express themselves how they feel, to create their own products with a variety of creative techniques and to develop their creativity, and just to get out of the gray daily routine and traumas which they went and still go through.

Not long ago, Megjashi printed a manual “We are all children of this world - how to discuss with students about the refugee crisis” as part of the Peace Education program. This publication is an attempt to contribute to understanding the plight of thousands of people who pass daily through Macedonia, who are close to us and our everyday living.


11. You have been working on the program for Peace Education for quite some time. What does it mean and what do you hope to achieve?

The First Children’s Embassy in the World - Megjashi advocates for the Peace Education program to be incorporated into the school curricula and project activities curriculum among students, in the same way it is being done with the project activity “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”. Education for peace means promoting the culture of peace, value based education, active teachers who encourage children to develop critical thinking and understanding of others. We plan on organizing all of this together with the students, parents and teachers from several high schools in Skopje, Veles, Gostivar, Debar and Vinica involved in this program. We are working together with the teachers in terms of being sensitized to various forms of violence, non-violent conflict transformation and non-violent means of action for peace-building. They will help us in advocacy and lobbying, so that the Ministry of Education and Science could understand the importance of building a culture of peace among students from the earliest age. For this purpose, we have already organized several workshops with teachers for advocacy and lobbying related to the introduction of peace education in the educational process.


12. The Children's Embassy is involved in the regional project - Partnership for reconciliation through early childhood development and education in Europe (PRECEDE). What activities have been projected within this program?

It has been four years already since the First Children's Embassy in the World Megjashi, together with the partner organizations from Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Northern Ireland started implementing the Program for reconciliation through early childhood development and education in Europe (PRECEDE).

Our focus are children aged 0 to 6 years, their families, preschool institutions, professionals and experts in early childhood education and development, policy makers, civil society organizations and all other individuals and organizations interested in improving the Macedonian society by developing acceptance and cooperation starting from early childhood.

Namely, violence against children is a violation of their rights, as well as a prediction for possible violence related experience later in life, be it in the role of victim or perpetrator. This is the reason why we strive to build an inclusive society where children and adults will respect diversity. It involves the development of learning abilities, empathy and reducing prejudice, which would promote equal inclusion of people with different religions, different opportunities and different ethnic, cultural, social and other affiliations. We are also developing and testing methods, tools, educational modules and programs that help us develop our own capacities and strengthen local communities in society in order to improve the development and education policies and practices in Macedonia, the Balkans and in Europe.

Through this program we work directly with the children, their parents and teachers from 11 kindergartens in Macedonia, on topics related to tolerance and acceptance of diversity. The program also includes several other components, such as research, monitoring and analysis of international and local policies, programs and projects in terms of conflict prevention, peace building and reconciliation through education upbringing. Another component is lobbying and advocating for the inclusion of modules and topics relevant to conflict prevention, peace building and reconciliation in the national plans and programs in preschool education. The program is completed with a component dedicated to strengthening civil society organizations and quality management services offered to citizens, especially to children.

Currently, in the scope of our joint activities we are working on a Regional Manifesto, that the Children's Embassy Megjashi is now preparing, i.e. I as a regional coordinator for advocacy and lobbying, with the intent to contribute to the fulfillment of the main goal of the network, which is - strengthening the capacities of civil society organizations in the Balkans and Europe, as well as providing institutional and wide social support for the process of acceptance, peace-building, reconciliation, respect of diversity and social cohesion through education and development in the early years. The Manifesto for young children will serve as an agreement that recognizes, supports and promotes the importance of early childhood education, development, proper upbringing and good care, and thus teaching a culture of respect and peace, tolerance, inclusion and diversity in the early years. The most important objective of this official document underlining the importance of promoting a culture of respect, peace and acceptance of diversity from the earliest years of childhood, is to be accepted, signed and followed through by political parties, other official national, regional and international institutions and organizations.


13. The Children's Embassy Megjashi ordered a research study conducted by BRIMA Gallup Intl in April, 2016. What was the idea to order that kind of study?

We wanted to thoroughly examine what the citizens mostly recognize us by, to what extent they think our work influences and makes changes in the society, how independent and autonomous they believe our organization is. We asked the citizens how responsible, professional and committed they think we are, in relation to our mission and principles that we stand for in the last 24 years. Namely, in the context of political tensions and uncertainty regarding the elections and all the tension occurring in the society, the fact that we are named as a second organization in the civic sector after the Civil Association "MOST", is really worth mentioning, i.e. about two-thirds of the respondents are familiar with the Children's Embassy Megjashi. What we are mostly recognized by, are the children's rights related activities, protection of children from violence, providing humanitarian aid etc. What means most to us, and what all the previous studies have proven so far, is that even 82% of respondents have trust in our activities. Overall, about 83% of respondents who know about MEGJASHI, believe that our actions have an impact in the public. It is also important to note that about two-thirds of respondents, who know about the Children's Embassy Megjashi think that we are independent from political influence.

14. On April 29, the Children's Embassy Megjashi celebrated its 24th birthday. What has made the greatest impression on you in the past 24 years?

We broke the silence about the suffering of the children. We encourage children to talk about everything that happens to them. We raised the importance of respecting the rights of the child and the child's personality on a higher level. Also, the fact that we speak bolder and louder about the importance of peace education in the educational process makes us happy.


15. What does the Children's Embassy Megjashi currently work on?

As partners, we have started implementing the regional project “Transnational coalition of civil society organizations in Southeast Europe for protection of women and children from human trafficking and gender-based violence”, named STOP. With this activity we are trying to establish cooperation among civil society organizations and institutions which are dealing with issues related to child/human trafficking and gender-based violence.