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EU Must Press Bosnia and Herzegovina on Childcare Reform

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo. Anniversaries like this often provide watershed moments; people and governments remember, reflect, apologise and make commitments to doing things differently in the future. Just last week Bosnia and Herzegovina's Prime Minister bowed to pressure from ex-soldiers and committed to finding 15 million euro to pay overdue pensions. This came in response to many days and nights of protest in front of the government building.

But there is one group of citizens who can't stand up for their rights by camping out in front of parliament. They are the hundreds of children growing up in institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their situation is all too often overlooked by our leaders. The legacy of the war continues to have a damaging impact on family structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Post-traumatic stress disorder, physical health issues, lack of tolerance towards mixed marriages and continuing unemployment all prevent families from staying together. The result of family breakdown is often the institutionalisation of children.

Before the war there were five institutions for children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, today there is 15. Five are state run, while the others are run by international organisations and religious groups. Four of these state run institutions have capacity for more than 100 children. These children are growing up without a loving family environment or adult role models; their intellectual and emotional development is damaged. They will leave the institution with limited life or social skills. For babies and children under the age of three, even a short amount of time in an institution causes lasting psychological damage.

The growth in institutions after the war can be put down to a number of factors. One is certainly the efforts of individuals around the world who fundraise for orphanages, not understanding the damaging impact of growing up in an institution or that 80% of children in institutions around the world have at least one parent alive.

More critically there is a lack of political will from our leaders to invest in the social care system and to address long held beliefs that growing up in an institution is a good solution for children if families are poor or facing economic or health challenges. Politicians are easily influenced by institution directors who oppose deinstitutionalisation for reasons that are not always in the best interests of the children.

Hope and Home for Children is an international organisation that specialises in closing harmful children's institutions and reforming childcare systems. In 2006 we worked with the entity government of The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on its Policy for the Protection of Children Deprived of Parental Care and Families at Risk of Separation in Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With support of Hope and Homes for Children and UNICEF an Action Plan was created at the end of 2011 and it includes activities to close institutions, invest in more community-based support programmes, increase the capacity of the Centres for Social Work and develop adoption and fostering. Yet despite the policy being adopted in 2008, the Action Plan for it is still pending the approval of parliament.

Republika Srpska has also adopted its Strategy for the enhancement of social welfare of children without parental care but the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is responsible for state-wide monitoring of child rights, has made no commitment to deinstitutionalisation in its current Action Plan for Children.

One of the reasons often cited for delays in reform is lack of funds. This week we published a review of ACTIVE Family Support, Hope and Homes for Children's support programme for vulnerable families. Since it began in 2003 ACTIVE Family Support has saved the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina over €4,000,000 in institution costs. Put simply, failing to invest in closing institutions is costing Bosnia and Herzegovina money.

Since Bosnia and Herzegovina new Government was formalised earlier this year it has been vocal about its ambition is to seek accession to the European Union. We hope the European Union prioritises childcare system reform in its pre-accession discussions with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Union should ensure our leaders to follow the example of neighbours like Serbia, Croatia Romania and Bulgaria, all of whom who have fully committed to deinstitutionalisation.