This best practice is a contribution to our #ChildUnion campaign and part of our “#ProgressiveLocalStories”, aiming at raising awareness on the many positive initiatives implemented by progressive cities and regions in Europe. Cities and regions have become laboratories for innovative solutions and, with this series, we want to discover how progressive mayors, councillors and presidents of regions put in place policies to promote child-friendly cities and regions.
Children’s rights in Austria
by Andreas Schieder, MEP (S&D, Austria)
February marked the anniversary of the Federal Constitutional Act on the Rights of Children coming into force in Austria. Ten years ago, intensive discussions took place on how to proceed with the around 45 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Following urgent demands by many NGOs to give the entire Convention constitutional status, eight individual articles were finally incorporated into the Federal Constitutional Act on the Rights of Children. These eight articles predominantly emphasise the key issues relating to children's rights: protection, care and rights of self-determination for children.
However, reality shows that practical implementation in many policy areas is still insufficient. In a wealthy country such as Austria, child poverty and poor access to basic needs is unacceptable. One in five children in Austria is affected by poverty. Children at particular risk of poverty are in households with more than three children and single parents. This has a direct impact on all areas of life and the development potential of the children concerned, as they are more likely to suffer from illnesses and have fewer social contacts. In 2019, Volkshilfe Austria launched a unique pilot project across Europe: Die Bekämpfung von Kinderarmut durch eine Kindergrundsicherung (Combating child poverty through a child guarantee).
For a period of two years, nine families and a total of twenty-three children are being supported by a child guarantee. This is intended to give all children in Austria a good start in life, regardless of the financial means of their parents. The child guarantee model transfers a monthly sum of at least EUR 200, with the additional element that children from households on a lower family income receive allowances of up to EUR 425 per month. The outcome would be a transformation of the current family allowance into a reliable and needs-based social state benefit. This means, for example, that children in households with an income of less than EUR 20 000 per annum receive EUR 625 per month, and children from households with an annual income of over EUR 35 000 receive a universal amount of EUR 200. The interim results of the pilot project showed a significant improvement in both material life and social participation of children in all areas.
Protecting children from physical and psychological violence, often within their own four walls, is also an important issue requiring more attention and action. Substantive laws affecting the best interests of the child need to be brought into line with constitutionally guaranteed children’s rights. The violation of existing children's rights is unacceptable and, in principle, it is necessary to assess regularly whether the protection of all children in Austria is guaranteed by current laws. A representative survey on attitudes and awareness of violence against children in the Austrian population showed that, 30 years after the legal prohibition of violence in child-raising, only half of respondents were in favour of non-violence as an ideal way of raising a child. This finding highlights the need for urgent education and awareness-raising measures on children's rights, as well as for the prevention of violence in these areas. Since the beginning of January 2021, children who have witnessed domestic violence can claim victims' rights such as trial assistance. There is therefore a need for accompanying information measures in this area and for increased resources for child protection organisations to implement these rights.
It is also important to remember that the foundations for educational paths are laid in kindergartens. Education begins with the youngest children and therefore needs to be included in early childhood pedagogy. These educational institutions ensure the best possible support for all children, regardless of their gender, mother tongue or the educational level of their family. The nationwide development of pedagogical and organisational standards for pre-school education is an inevitable step towards improving the starting conditions for all children. In particular, in terms of care rates for children under three, Austria performs below the EU average with 23%. The EU-27 average for childcare for the under-threes is 35%. This makes it particularly difficult for women to re-enter the labour market, as there is a large gap in the development of state childcare between children under and over three years of age. In Austria, responsibility for childcare lies with the Länder (provinces), meaning that implementation and laws differ from one region to another. In Upper Austria, for example, afternoon care must be paid for from 1 p.m. onwards, whereas only Vienna and Burgenland offer free kindergarten places. Another problem is the limited opening hours of childcare facilities. One third of kindergartens and pre-school play groups in Austria close before 4 p.m. and in most Länder afternoon care incurs additional costs. The multiple burdens of additional care responsibilities mainly fall on women. In Austria, only 23% of all mothers with children under the age of six are in full-time employment.
In general, the perspective and involvement of children must be taken into account in future urban development. The City of Vienna’s Child and Youth Strategy 2020-2025 aims to make Vienna the most child- and youth-friendly city in the world. The aim is to integrate the perspectives and interests of children and young people into policy decisions.
At European level, we need to implement the following measures to protect our children:
- A European Child Guarantee for all children to put an end to child poverty.
- Clear European rules with sanctions to protect us and our children from fake news and hate speech, among other things.
- The right to a kindergarten place for all children.
- In addition, child-raising periods across Europe should receive financial recognition: We need a 4-day week to enable employees to contribute to domestic work and child-raising.
Especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, children's needs must not be neglected. The contact restrictions, which are necessary from the point of view of health, mean isolation and have alarming repercussions for children. Home schooling in cramped living conditions can have a dramatic impact, especially in low-income households. Following the example of the City of Vienna, a comprehensive package of mental and social health measures must be put together in order to minimise subsequent psychological harm.
Vienna’s Children and Youth Strategy 2020-2025
by Michael Ludwig, Mayor of Vienna and PES Group member
It is an important task not just of every national government, but also of regional and local politicians and authorities, to give children and young people a happy childhood and youth. Over the past few years the City of Vienna has been addressing this issue intensively, and it decided to adopt the obvious, but challenging, approach of not just talking about children and young people, but talking with them. The result is a municipal strategy developed by children and young people.
Austria ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) back in 1992. The Convention enshrines the rights of the child through the fundamental principle of participation. This means that children must be appropriately involved in all decisions that concern them, i.e. in accordance with their age and stage of development, instead of being dependent solely on the goodwill of adults. Participation is important for many psychological, social and democratic reasons. It is essential to fruitful development and a peaceful, dignified co-existence, allowing optimum implementation of the rights to protection and care, as set out in the UNCRC (which provides for the “three Ps” of protection, provision, and participation).
A Children and Youth Strategy 2020-2025 was developed in Vienna based on this precept. More than 22 000 children and young people were actively involved through the Workshop Young Vienna in designing the strategy, engaging in over 1 300 workshops in nurseries, schools and other institutions. A basic requirement was that all children and young people should be able to take part and be a part of the process, regardless of their situation in life and individual resources. The first success was achieved in June 2020 when Vienna City Council adopted its Children and Youth Strategy based on the results of the Workshop Young Vienna and gave the instruction for the 193 measures set out in the strategy to be implemented. The measures can be summarised under the following nine thematic headings, ranked in order of their priority for the children and young people: Nature and Environment, Opportunities and Future, Health and Wellbeing, Community and Togetherness, Space and Place, Participation and Opinion, Safety and Security, Mobility and Traffic, and Leisure and Culture. Some of the measures have already been set out in some detail, e.g. installing lower grab rails or handles for children on public transport, placing emergency telephones in public places, or investigating the feasibility of introducing a child guarantee. Other measures, e.g. to strengthen media literacy of children and young people, developing child and youth counselling models for municipal offices and bodies of the City of Vienna, or the proposal to further challenge narrow role models, still leave considerable room for detailed planning and design together with children and young people. All 193 will have been implemented by 2025.
Wir machen Wien zu kinder- und jugendfreundlichsten Stadt – nämlich mit ihnen ZUSAMMEN! @BgmLudwig & @ChairNoHorseKey haben die Wiener Kinder- und Jugendstrategie präsentiert . #ludwig2020 pic.twitter.com/xWODLYuTk4
— SPÖ Wien – Die Wienpartei (@SP_Wien) May 28, 2020
Implementation of the measures will be continuously monitored and adapted to ensure that objectives are achieved, based on regular reviews in which children and young people are included. The Ombudsman for Children and Young People is also involved in this monitoring process, and will assess developments as an independent and impartial service of the City of Vienna.
Pre-school education in Vienna – much achieved, much still to achieve
In 2009, alongside the compulsory one year of nursery schooling introduced nationally, the City of Vienna launched free full-day nursery facilities, an important measure in terms of early years education and providing support to families with children under the age of six. The entitlement was for children up to the age of six to receive pre-school education and care, regardless of parents' income and circumstances, and to enable them to enjoy experiences with children of the same age and people from outside their family circle. The “free nursery schools” really have played a substantial role in ensuring equal access to education, combating poverty, and promoting inclusion and social cohesion. Not only that, but children benefit from early socialisation in nursery school and the opportunity that these establishments provide in terms of education and learning in a fun and self-directed way. The vast majority of nursery schools in Vienna offer high-quality teaching. Vienna is particularly notable not just for the fact that the nursery schools are free and that a large number of children are eligible, but also for other family-friendly considerations: the long opening hours of nurseries and few days on which they are closed support reconciliation of professional and family life and promotion of gender equality.
As expected, this availability of free nursery schooling prompted a steep increase in demand for places. The need to rapidly expand the number of pre-school facilities – combined with the pre-existing need for organisational, financial and educational improvements – presented the city with considerable challenges. The necessary fast extension of nursery places, which was achieved mainly by approving private providers, was achieved to a certain extent at the cost of the educational and business standards of the establishments. It was now more difficult to tackle the pupil-teacher ratio, already too high in Austria, and average group sizes that did not meet academic recommendations. Dividing early education facilities between municipal and private providers also created difficulties, in this case relating to the financing of nursery places, that have not yet been resolved. But above all serious deficiencies remain when it comes to providing for children with disabilities and chronic health conditions; there is an awareness among those responsible that something needs to be done here to improve delivery.
In summary, the city of Vienna has already achieved a great deal overall, while there remains a certain amount to be done so as to ensure that all children up to the age of six can attend a pre-school facility where all their needs are catered for and they received comprehensive education. A critical aspect of this is the anchoring of children's rights in early-years education, by implementing child protection concepts across the board, as well as promoting participation, social learning and a democratic approach so that young people already learn how to understand themselves and others, to engage and listen to each other. Adults and children can thus work together to create an optimum context for the protection of children and children's rights.
A final point to be made is that Articles 14, 24 and 32 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantee the protection of specific rights of the child and that the European Union is required to protect those rights. The EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the proposal to introduce a European Child Guarantee, both presented in March 2021, therefore represent an important step towards implementing children's rights across Europe. Further steps must follow in order to guarantee children's rights as required under UNCRC.
Photo credits of photo 1+3 : Stadt Wien/PID, Fotograf Jobst