As for all children, the early years are critical for the development of Roma children.
Children’s early development is determined by supportive family and community child care practices, appropriate nutrition and health care, quality learning opportunities, and protection from risk. Child friendly policies and supportive services for young children and their families are essential to provide the necessary enabling environment.
Early childhood development services are especially important for young children from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities given the strong and positive associations between investments in early childhood, poverty reduction and inclusion. Yet, these are the very children who have the least access to services. Young Roma children are probably the most disadvantaged group in Europe. Their disadvantages are rooted in widespread racial discrimination against the Roma that leads to structural barriers that reinforce their exclusion. However there are also such obstacles as poverty (e.g. WB data for 2006-2008 shows that Roma poverty rate is 67 per cent in Romania), absence of identity documents (official census data for 2002 for Serbia cite 108,193 persons of Roma ethnicity, though the unofficial figures are as high as 700,000) and low levels of parental education which are associated with lower levels of support to young children’s learning at home (e.g. 50 per cent of Roma parents in Bosnia & Herzegovina have not completed primary education) and low participation of Roma young children in early childhood care and education programs. Available data suggest that Roma families have limited access to health care services and that the enrolment of young Roma children in early education services for children aged 3-6 years rarely exceeds 50 per cent as compared to an overall enrolment rate of over 80 per cent for all children in European Union countries. In countries such as Serbia and FYR of Macedonia, enrolment rates for Roma children are respectively 3.9 and 3.5 per cent.
Since joining the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2007, UNICEF has directed particular attention to the deprivations and risks that affect the development of Roma children in the Central and South East European countries. Within the ongoing Roma Early Childhood Inclusion and Roma Good Start Initiative projects, UNICEF in collaboration with partners – OSFs and REF – is reviewing the adequacy of policies and services and identifying good practices in early childhood care and education. UNICEF seeks to raise awareness among policy makers, decision makers, professionals, practitioners, civil society service providers, Roma communities and the wider public on the need to rapidly and systematically expand ECD services among vulnerable populations. More information on the ongoing projects can be found at: RECI, RGSI.