Guest Article: Giorgiana Rosa, Advocacy Consultant, First Years First Priority Campaign
Across Europe, we see persistent child health inequality, both within and between EU Member States. Children living in poverty and experiencing exclusion and discrimination have poorer health outcomes and face particular barriers to accessing healthcare. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities, with severe impacts on children’s physical and mental health. The proposed European Child Guarantee, launched on 24 March, is, therefore, an important milestone in the fight against child poverty and social exclusion.
Health inequalities start early, in pregnancy, infancy and early childhood, and social determinants of health – poverty, insecurity, discrimination, homelessness, inadequate housing, lack of education – play a major role. For example, an estimated 500,000 women in the EU go through their first months of pregnancy with no access to health services. Women from migrant, refugee, and Roma communities and women living in poverty are particularly at risk. While infant mortality has decreased significantly in the European Union, some communities continue to be disproportionately affected, with higher infant mortality rates among Roma children in several countries.
Investing in early childhood should be a priority
Children’s early years are fundamental for their healthy development and wellbeing. Enabling families and caregivers to provide nurturing care, from the start, is therefore essential for tackling health inequalities. That is why Eurochild and ISSA – the International Step by Step Association – as co-leads, with EPHA and Roma Education Fund as associate partners, have launched the ‘First Years, First Priority’ campaign, to increase political attention to, and public investment in, early childhood development.
The period between pregnancy and the first three years of life provides the foundation for optimum health, growth, and neuro, cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical development across the lifespan. That is why the Campaign focuses on prioritising children from birth to 6 years, with special attention to the first 1,000 days.
Guaranteeing essential services for all children
The proposal for a Child Guarantee seeks to ensure that all children in need have free access to early childhood education and care; education (including school-based activities); a healthy meal each school day; healthcare; and access to healthy nutrition and adequate housing. If adopted by Member States, it has the potential to be life-changing for families and children and to be a key instrument to tackle child health inequality.
However, this potential will be limited without a holistic approach to children’s development in early childhood. For instance, ensuring access to quality healthcare must also include universal access to quality maternal, newborn and child healthcare, as key prerequisites for children’s survival and healthy development. This should be a priority for Member States’ national action plans to implement the Child Guarantee. Including all children, ‘irrespective of migrant status’, is especially important as undocumented children and families are among the most vulnerable.
We hope Member States will adopt an ambitious and comprehensive Child Guarantee that can trigger national reforms and public investment in early childhood development. Success will depend on governments’ willingness to make the fight against child poverty and social exclusion a national priority and to ensure that upholding children’s rights in early childhood is a cornerstone of their efforts.
Watch our discussion on early childhood development organised by Eurochild and EPHA as part of the Social Platform’s Conference “Building Social Europe” on 4-5 May 2021.