In Czechia, children are the most vulnerable to the effects of extreme poverty. Czech deputy prime minister and minister of labor and social affairs, Marian Jurečka, acknowledged in 2022 that child poverty in Czechia is a “huge problem.” The rate of children under 18 at risk of poverty and social exclusion has increased from 12.9% in 2020 to 13.3% in 2021 due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Czech presidency and nonprofit organizations are taking action to reduce the risk of child poverty and protect those most in jeopardy.
Groups at High Risk of Poverty
The youth most affected by poverty in the Czech Republic are socially disadvantaged. For instance, Roma children, children with disabilities, Ukrainian refugees or those from single-mother families.
The European Roma Rights Center and Forum for Human Rights filed a complaint in January 2023 to the European Committee of Social Rights, noting the government’s failure to provide Roma children and those facing poverty with accessible preschool education. Without accessible and affordable education and care, poverty could lead to a loss of educational opportunities and a decline in children’s overall well-being.
Policies in Action
The Czech Republic, along with its fellow European Union member states, is ready to fulfill these needs. The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan promises to decrease the number of children at risk of poverty by approximately 5 million in seven years (2030). Additionally, the European Child Guarantee, proposed in 2021, aims to meet the five basic needs of every child: “free health care, education, preschool education and care, decent housing and adequate nutrition.”
Reformation on the Horizon
Combating child poverty requires addressing children’s specific needs. The government will likely appoint an ombudsman (representative) for children soon in order to tackle specific needs and systemic issues. According to Diana Šmídová, the secretary of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, school reforms are underway focusing on teaching children’s rights. Free language lessons for Ukrainian child refugees and educational integration are also a priority. Appointed in December 2022, Lucie Fuková, the first-ever Roma commissioner in Czechia, is taking on the task of helping the Roma community integrate.
Alternatives to Institutionalization
Every year, more than a thousand children are sent to orphanages or state care institutions in Czechia. A notable 25% of these children are younger than 4. Czechia is one of the few remaining countries in the EU that still institutionalize children so young.
Children born in poverty are more likely to be placed in institutions because their families are unable to provide for them. This subsequent neglect and separation from their biological family can have detrimental effects on children’s development.
Roma children are also commonly removed from their homes and institutionalized as their families are more susceptible to eviction, or simply because of discrimination.
For these reasons, the Czech government is prioritizing foster families and slowly restricting institutionalized care. Such institutionalized care for children younger than 4 will be banned from 2025, save for certain exemptions, according to a national 2022 report. Substitute family and preventative care will be expanded to meet as many needs as possible. With supportive networks in development, an increasing interest in foster care is anticipated.
Nonprofits Making an Impact
Nonprofits like Charita Hvězda z.s. step in to provide additional support for children of at-risk families. In 2022, the organization assisted 293 families in need, 395 Ukrainian refugee families and 212 substitute families. Ukrainian families received the organization’s largest contribution of aid (44%). Assistance ranged from covering individual client expenses to donations of food and drugstore items.
Charita Hvězda’s main project, the Foster Care Warehouse, is located in Horoměřice and offers material help for all children from substitute or socially disadvantaged families. This includes baby food, playpens, toiletries and sports equipment.
As of 2018, this site serves as a meeting place for foster families and those in crisis, providing emergency care, information and numerous resources. Though Charita Hvězda is a non-governmental organization, it is the byproduct of a government initiative to support surrogate families and limit institutional care.
Refugees in Need
The Russia-Ukraine war has taken a particularly heavy toll on the young. Notably high, more than a third of global refugees forced out of their countries are children. Approximately 130,000 Ukrainian children are living as refugees in Czechia now, some unaccompanied.
In response to the growing numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict, the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA), UNICEF and civil society organizations created a disability cash benefit program in January 2023. This program targets vulnerable, refugee children: whether Ukrainian, Roma, unaccompanied or disabled. MoLSA and UNICEF began their collaboration in July 2022 and are expanding this plan to address specific needs.
According to Yulia Oleinik, head of the UNICEF Refugee Response Office in Czechia, the collective goal is to provide “4,000 refugee children with disabilities with financial benefits and support services.” Expanded psychosocial and mental health services for 25,000 at-risk refugee children, as well as their guardians, is another aim. Oleinik said that strengthening the social system will eventually “benefit all children in the Czech Republic.”
UNICEF is cooperating with MoLSA through March 2024. Together, the two partners have already provided grants for education centers, giving children up to age 6 access to community education. So far, 29 early education centers offering non-formal activities like integration groups and parenting support have reached more than 1,200 children and 1,500 parents across Ukraine and Czechia.
Dedication to the Cause
Money alone will not eradicate child poverty in Czechia. A strong commitment to seeing through key action plans and making them a reality is also necessary. With community support and nonprofit organizations providing further aid, Czechia can greatly reduce child poverty for at-risk groups and keep families together.
– Clare Calzada