The guest of this episode is Maia Banarescu, the People’s Advocate for the Rights of the Child. In essence, this authority, either as a person or as an institution, has the task to defend citizens from the excesses of power of public authorities and is considered a symbol of a democratic state. 

This episode is a special one. I made it together with Lia Bitca, a 10th grade student at Boris Danga Theoretical Lyceum in Criuleni, who is the winner of the first place in the essay contest “Full realization of human rights – a precondition for building fair societies”, organized within the “Strengthening Efficiency and Access to Justice in Moldova” Project implemented by the UNDP Moldova, with the financial support of Sweden. As part of the prize, the organizers wanted Lia and other winners to live the experience of making a podcast with a personality from the field of human rights and justice, to meet and discuss what is interesting to them. Lia wanted to discuss with Mrs. Banarescu about the rights of the children, which are the most violated and why, how did the Covid pandemic affect the observance of rights, but also what the People’s Advocate for the Rights of the Child plans until the end of her mandate or what does she like most about her work. 

Lia Bitca: To start with, I would like to ask you first what are the least respected rights among adolescents?

Maia Banarescu: In all reports submitted by me as a People’s Advocate for the Rights of the Child, I always try to prioritize the rights that are more often violated, which is very difficult for me. Practically all rights are violated to some extent. Speaking of a right, of course we focus a lot on the right to education, where we can also see quite a lot of impediments when enjoyed by the child.

In particular, the epidemics that came upon us like a snow ball highlighted all shortcomings and pointed out to what we knew but we did not realize how those would turn out. I am talking about the access of all children to education, I am talking about those categories of children who simply did not have the gadgets, I am talking about families who had 3-4 children and had little space, no computers, I am talking about the access of teachers, I am talking about the lack of skills of teachers and children to work online.

The children noted: “Mrs. Banarescu, we are taught to look for information, to write messages, but not to attend online lessons”. The same goes for the situation of parents, with whom to leave the children, the security of children, single-parent children, where there is only one parent, children with disabilities. Let us not forget that the children were fed at school and some were from socially vulnerable families and that was the only food they received and suddenly, they were deprived of it. And this is also related to the right to education.

And what is more serious, Lia, I mean, you, the children don’t know your rights, you know your rights only within written limit but you cannot analyze the rights, and that’s not your fault; it is the fault of the education system.

I am often asked if I don’t talk to children too much about rights and I tell them: definitely not, because every person needs to know their rights, but we also need to talk properly about rights. The child must know his/her rights and must know his/her responsibilities. By the way, I am trying to avoid the word “obligation”, they are synonymous, but the state and adults have the obligation to create conditions for you, you however, have responsibilities.

And as long as the child knows that there is a right of the child and there is a responsibility, the child will grow a responsible child and a responsible citizen. 

Cu DREPTul: But why is it important for them to know their rights? When is it best to start? How? Where? 

Maia Banarescu: The child must know his/her rights from the very first days, once he/she becomes conscious, because discussions are held with children according to their maturity and level of understanding. And hence, from the kindergarten, from the nursery, children need to hear about rights, responsibilities, mutual respect for each other, because self-respect comes when you respect others, and then you begin to respect yourself. And it is important that parents also talk about rights, and not just talk about the fact that you are obliged, you are obliged, that you know well your rights. No! All discussions are held, for instance, you have the right, but you also have the responsibility, a consensus is reached, because when knowing your rights, you will know what to claim when these are violated. There are adults who do not know what to claim and where to go to claim their rights.

Likewise the children, I was also talking about the institution of the Ombudsman, the People’s Advocate for the Rights of the Child, another exercise that I do with some mandatory questions, so for my personal interest, I ask the children if they know what the Ombudsman means and, regretfully, they do not know who a People’s Advocate is, and it is serious. But this institution as a child protection mechanism is included in the national curriculum and this speaks to us again about the violation of the rights of the child to know his/her rights and the mechanism they need to turn to. That is why it is important to know your rights, know what to demand from the state to be respected and know where to turn if you have a problem.

For example, children do not know that there is an Ombudsman they can see at any age, even you, as a child. According to the legislation, the child cannot address to other institutions without a legal representative but the children can talk to the Ombudsman without an adult being present.

Lia Bitca: What do you plan to achieve by the end of your mandate?

Maia Banarescu: Children with disabilities are a priority for me. I can say that I have achieved half of what I planned. We have put on the agenda of the authorities many categories of disabilities – children with rare diseases, which were neither in the legislation nor now is that notion; children with visual and hearing impairments, who need the sign alphabet; children with Down syndrome do not have access to education; children with locomotor disabilities do not have access to toilets, not to mention the educational inclusion of these children. 

This is a disaster both at the level of institutions, which are not ready to include these children because of lack of conditions, and I am not talking only about those with locomotor disabilities, but even, as I said, those with visual and hearing impairments because the special equipment for blind children is missing. The teachers are not ready to have a child with special needs – the support framework is not sufficient. Parents… Again problems – it is very difficult for a parent to accept the fact that his/her child has problems. And here are now the last cases that I examine, the managers of educational institutions, teachers talk about parents who are recommended to go for a psychological evaluation in order to have the individual plan, but parents do not go and this is a waste of time for child’s development.

I will continue with the enforcement of the rights of children with disabilities. I think that the children left without parental care is another vulnerable category because although there are children placed in different friendly services, we also have children who are actually living in social conditions adapted to the new requirements, but the rights of the child are not fully respected. There are abused children, children without protection, we have children who were in the system for 18 years and leave it without financial support, so here too, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are not many children in penitentiaries, plus-minus about 60 children, but this is the consequence, we fight the consequence, but we must work on prevention.

I want for the child to know and address when there is violence and not tolerate violence, and not be violent. The bullying that has been introduced in the legislation and it is very good, I want the children to have confidence in themselves, to talk about their opinion, to attend meetings, to hear their voice, to ask the authorities to come and tell them what they have done with their opinion, because what we are preparing today, that is what we will have. And I always say that a responsible citizen is groomed; the mission of education must be carried out to prepare the child for the adult life, fewer theories, there should be a radical change in the education system.

The child must be prepared as a personality. Being an Olympian and having a long list of Olympians in a country is prestigious, but your children have to be prepared for adult life, which I think it is the most important – we want to help them to know what to do after they graduate school.

Cu DREPTul: To what extent can we say that school prepares children for life?

Maia Banarescu: No, we can’t say. I don’t want to give a rating of “9”, “10”, but we talk very little about adult life. Indeed, some new subjects have been introduced, education for society, some IT courses have been provided. We must make a serious turn in the education system, because we had the change, the Education Code was introduced, yes, instead of the law on education, but it is not adapted to the modern situation, everything in this world has changed. We go ahead and change the curriculum; we change subjects; we cross our fingers and launch it, but later on, we understand that it doesn’t really work and we re-evaluate and improve the subject in line with the modern life, and we start again with homework…

Lia Bitca: How well do Moldovans know their rights and how can we teach them about their rights?

Maia Banarescu: As I said, not well at all. Same goes for both children and adults. How can we improve? Through education. Human rights education from kindergarten and throughout life, we do not end with school, education continues. We have parents, who are not ready; parents who do not know how to bring up their children; one can see on the street how a parent educates his/her child by slapping and rattling, but when you try to draw their attention, the parents become aggressive. However, this is very serious, because the State, as part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most important Convention, has received some recommendations that have not been met yet.

Everyone heard of classic sanitation-related issues: toilets in the yard, missing equipment in medical units, no access to the bathrooms, no drinking water. The State should be actually ashamed because the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stipulates that: the education by beating, the slapping as a way of education still persists in Moldova. What does it mean? Likewise, trained generations, educated generations and continuing education, only through education will we get to that level of knowing our rights, knowing our responsibilities and the ways of defending ourselves and demanding our rights, claiming them.”

Cu DREPTul: Why do some people neglect or, more precisely, violate the rights especially of children and how can we mitigate this negligence?

Maia Banarescu: Unfortunately, there are too many children. We have about 700 thousand children in the country, which is not a big figure, and even though, we cannot offer them a happy childhood and a friendly environment. There are parents who are violent with their children and there are parents who neglect their children and what does the State do? The State provides some financial aid but we cannot monitor what the parents do with this aid. We offer several thousands for children but they still grow in poverty because the parents use the assistance as they deem necessary and the child is left with his/her issue. As a State we are not able to intervene in these families and help children; we are not able to hold parents accountable.

And there is another very serious matter – most parents consider the child their property and that is serious, that is a problem. We must think as a state how we hold parents who do not pay enough attention and neglect children accountable, we cannot leave children in an environment that is harmful to them.

Yes, the courts have such cases as deprivation of parental rights, because we saw it as a solution, but it is not a solution by far and after the European Court declared Moldova guilty in a case of deprivation of parental rights, the judges are very reluctant to pronounce such decisions now. Although the legislation does not stipulate, there is a very important principle in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the best interests of the child. And the international acts have superiority. And everyone – judges and other professionals – must interpret the legislation having the best interests of the child in mind, even at the risk of violating an act, a law somewhere, but Article 48 of the Constitution gives superiority to these international acts. We have to bear in mind the child’s interest and not just do it because the society is watching us. 

Cu DREPTul: A lot of reforms were implemented in recent years, including in the area of children’s rights. Which area registered changes, successes and which area still needs improvement or which one looks better on the paper than in reality?

Maia Banarescu: I would like to refer to two large areas, which refer to the inclusion of children with disabilities, meaning the reform that took place 12 years ago, which reorganized the boarding school system. It is good what has been started, what has been done, the child must have a healthy environment. I want to tell you that we are also an example to many states, but in my opinion, the big problem arises when we have to evaluate the impact, because this results in many problems and the parents lose the ability to help these children. At the beginning they were trained before receiving a child, however, after years, they cannot cope because the children have grown, the parents have aged or the children are no longer children. I was a witness when a mother called and begged, “Please take back the child, because I cannot cope any more”.

The educational inclusion is also very far behind the child’s requirements. As a State, we have a very large backlog, it is not enough.

Let’s take the example of a support teacher who has three children with severe, serious, accentuated and pronounced disability and maybe another seven or eight others. How does he physically do it? Where does the time come from? The practice of other states is wonderful: one child – one personal assistant, one child – one support teacher – with us is different. This is what has been achieved, but we have to start evaluate and think about our next steps. We have very big problems in the area of mental health. Generally speaking, it needs to be checked-up in children.

We have to introduce the psychologist in the society not just in schools. I spoke about children left without parental care and I can see that much has been done, but the system is not perfect. Children leave the system without support or housing. Where does a child who has no place to live go? What do we do with this child?  I go back to our juvenile justice system, we don’t have a juvenile justice strategy, we don’t know how to prevent, we don’t have prevention. We have a law adopted in 2019, if I’m not mistaken, which does not even have the enforcement mechanism and the law is about prevention, and here we have, it was done, I appreciate, but it is not effective.

Cu DREPTul: What is the impact of the pandemic on the rights of the child, observance, violations?

We saw that the impact of the pandemic was serious both on the education and health system.

Maia Banarescu: We found ourselves with no medicine for children with rare diseases, we almost had some fatal cases, when the children were about to die because they could not receive the medicine. The COVID-19 had an impact on the socialization of children with disabilities, children subject to violence, sexual violence, online or virtual violence or sexual abuse. It is clear that it had a tremendous impact on all rights and in all areas. It is a lesson for us and it has to become a priority to learn from those lessons and strive to be ready to face new challenges. This is important and the child needs to be trained, both the child and the parents, what to do if we have another pandemic? How do we act? How do we observe the rights and how do we protect our lives and health? And let us not forget about community’s responsibility, one is not alone in the community, you do what you want at home, but when you are in the community – respect the rights and then, we will succeed in overcoming the pandemic.

This material was developed as part of the Strengthening Efficiency and Access to Justice in Moldova” Project, implemented by the UNDP Moldova, with the financial support of Sweden. The views are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNDP and Sweden.

This text is an excerpt from the CuDREPTul podcast. The full version, audio and text, exists only in Romanian.