2.1 Short description
The association RODA – Parents in Action, with its innovative programme of activities was formed in the social space that was previously considered private and perceived as the responsibility of parents in traditional societies and their extended families. The need for such an initiative came with the increase in the number of young families with children, with better education, in a big city (Zagreb), who do not have the support of parents and close relatives and still face the challenge of reconciling professional and family commitments. Initially, the efforts of the association were centred on the protection of vested social rights, but with a lot of volunteer work and enthusiasm, the initiative resulted in multidimensional social change and social innovation.
As for family policy in Croatia, it is being manifested mostly through material benefits, such as children’s allowances, tax reliefs and maternity leaves, rather than through provision of services for children. To some extent, this is related to the structure of a traditional family: women used to work less, while relatives and members of extended families used to be on hand. The lack of child care services is particularly evident in large cities, where nurseries and kindergartens often cannot accommodate the children of working parents (Zrinščak 2008). The number of children covered by preschool care has been increasing in the past 20 years and it now amounts to 35 per cent.
According to the National Family Policy Strategy (2003), an increase in the number of child care institutions and increase in the number of children covered with organised preschool care and education was one of the priority areas for family policy development. This strategy also proposed measures related to education and training of parents, incentives for implementation of programmes of civil organizations, educational programmes that include education on family, partnership, parenthood, etc. It was pointed out that family policy should therefore contribute to creating a friendly social environment, which would help families solve a variety of problems, first and foremost the ones related to children’s development.
The problem of accommodation of children in preschool institutions only occasionally becomes a part of local public debates, as this is a service falls under the scope of local authorities. Rarely have there been cases of protests or highlighting problems in ways that would capture wide public attention. The practice of parents associations and their organised efforts, as beneficiaries to improve the provision of child care services were almost non-existent.
The issue of placing children in nurseries and kindergartens in Zagreb would usually appear on the agenda in early autumn only, when some children would be left without a place in kindergarten. Due to the pressure of extensive numbers of unenrolled children, private kindergartens and different forms of informal playrooms were established.
The association RODA – Parents in Action – was founded in mid-2001, as a spontaneous reaction of parents, women with children, who raised their voices against reduction of maternity allowance and protested in front of the government office. The women connected over the Internet. The association had continued to advocate the rights of parents persistently until the maternity allowance was not increased and maternity leave became longer and more flexible.
2.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
By promoting and advocating the rights of children, RODA has impacted changes in public policies for children, women and families. Through their consistent cooperation with the media, they have made a recognizable influence on public opinion and lobbied for changes in child care. RODA encourages active and responsible parenting through direct support and assistance to parents, to equip them with knowledge, empower them and make them better advocates for the rights of their children. They are joined and networked, which makes them strong and decisive in their public statements.
Parents are the ones who make decisions about their children. The children do not belong to the institutions, but the parents can affect the quality of services that children receive in child care institutions.
RODA has become an important stakeholder in the debate on the right to adequate maternity allowance and maternity leave, the right to medically assisted reproduction, pregnancy and improving birthing conditions, as well as promotion, education and counselling on breastfeeding, education and support to parents and children safety in traffic.
The association has gradually developed into somewhat of a “union of parents”. They have created a new paradigm of parenting in Croatia, promoting the idea that children need their parents and their greater affection. This is a kind of attachment parenting based on emotions and first experience of parenthood. “When you do not have a family to help you, you turn to those similar to yourself.”
RODA is familiar with problems of the many parents barely surviving, seeking their help: they state the cases of families of five who live in apartments of 26 m2. The housing situation is a limiting factor in the expansion of families and the decision to have two or more children. Temporary, 1-year employment contracts also present certain constraints. The association has helped some families to cover delayed rent payments.
For 8 years, RODA has been providing support and advice on breastfeeding through their breastfeeding phone line. They have also organised a school of breastfeeding, a conference and printed, and distributed relevant materials. These activities become a strong lever for the social integration of young mothers.
Considering the vulnerability of children in their parents’ cars, RODA launched an initiative for proper use of car seats for children. The result of the initiative was the increase in the number of children who are driven in car seats, as well as in the portion of car seats, which are correctly installed and used appropriately. In the framework of this programme, a large number of brochures have been printed and good cooperation with the police established, in so far as they organised quick traffic controls near kindergartens and on the city roads.
Four times a year, RODA organises sales of second-hand children’s clothing, shoes and equipment. So far, 30 sales have been held, and each was visited by an average of 800 parents. Organising such a 3-day event requires the help of 40 volunteers.
2.3. Internal organisation and mode of working
The activities of the association are mainly financed through state and city programmes, which support civil society. Citizens have been participating with small-scale donations, while a company donated 100,000 kuna to RODA instead of giving the money for Christmas cards and gifts. RODA also receives various kinds of non-monetary assistance and they are allowed to use storage space free of charge. Initially, they decided not to accept donations from companies that violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and the companies using unethical marketing targeted at children. However, activities of RODA rely mostly on voluntary engagement of members.
Deep involvement of RODA in active parenting initiatives has resulted in a social entrepreneurship project of sewing and selling cloth diapers and connected products. Since 2004, RODA has been promoting the use of cloth diapers as a healthier, more environmentally friendly and cheaper solution, and in 2006, they launched the whole venture. With their production of cloth diapers, RODA has set an example of social entrepreneurship among associations. What is manufactured is a high-quality product made from natural materials, healthy and safe for children, while disabled and difficult-to-employ persons are involved in the production. The production facilities are established within Vocational High School in Varaždin and there are 56 women working there. Social entrepreneurship is sustainable, it brings profit to the association, develops and expands and creates new jobs. The profits generated are reinvested in the business and core activities of the organization. The association has recently established a limited liability company for further production of cloth diapers.
RODA has 12 branches throughout Croatia and they have organised various activities in more than 50 Croatian cities and towns. Now, it is a strong network embedded in society and is the voice of advocacy for social change.
In order to strengthen its mission and public acceptance, every year RODA gives out awards to the relevant stakeholders who have contributed to fulfilling the mission of their organisation within the society. They also give out a kind of anti-award to those who have been prominent in their negative approach to the vision of the association. In 2011, this anti-award went to the Croatian Minister of Health who had advocated for a restrictive law on medically assisted reproduction.
RODA is known to the wider public via the RODA forum, which has over 40,000 monthly visits. This is the platform where new members with new ideas appear, and they contribute to strengthening the community spirit of the association and its constant renewal. This usually refers to the first experience of membership in an organization and first experience of volunteering. New members always have the time and passion to volunteer and help others, and in that way, they also develop their own character: it is not only about giving, but also receiving to a great extent. Advising other people is a completely new experience to them – to have a feeling that they help others and that the others believe them. These are solid foundations of a sustainable social network ready to take on the new challenges.
The main organising principle is that the association is managed like a household, with better-educated members – 95 per cent of them have never been members of any associations before. Ideas and projects belong to the association, while volunteer work builds trust and the atmosphere in which members are accepted and respected and they enjoy support of others.
The fact is that these are the persons who are quite well-off, middle class, and none of them receives children’s allowance, so the association is not concerned with this topic.
The dynamics of social innovation here remains visible through the provision of services: there are tangible and recognizable results. However, advocacy activities are harder to see and they provide long-term results. These two processes and priorities in the association are intertwined. As an association, RODA keeps changing as the children grow up and this is something that will be interesting to follow in the future. It is simply the dynamics that are difficult to predict. We are talking about a sense of membership in the network in which women share the same or similar values. This is a support that many people need in their lives. The strength and substance of the women is felt in the association.
Interestingly enough, none of the politicians has approached the association or expressed direct interest in their work1. It might be seen as a critical issue in terms of governance and perception of this group among politicians as the “opposition”.
RODA operates in a society where too many people remain silent about things that bother or disturb them; they do not protest, they were raised to obey. If they seek changes, they have to speak publically about it – those who provide services will hear them in one way or the other. What is announced publically always has a certain resonance. Through such public speech and statements, RODA has become a recognizable stakeholder in the family policy, which improves the quality of programmes for children, their accommodation and diet.
Adequate levels of trust and promoted norms and values are shared by all members of the association, especially the ones practicing volunteer work. In that way, the contribution to social capital multiplication has been made, as a basis for social innovation in the association and beyond. In this case, social change is visible in an area that used to be the area of privacy and the space of few government services. It was a framework for social innovation that strengthens social cohesion in general public.
RODA has passed their knowledge to the organisations in South East Europe, in Sarajevo, Belgrade and other cities. However, it has been impossible to implement such a programme in these countries, as there is neither readiness nor need for volunteer work. So in this case, it can be clearly stated that social innovation emerged from civil engagement and volunteer work of citizens making effort to protect and promote their interests.
2.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
RODA, as well-known stakeholders and advocates of social services for children, had an impact on the practice of making and implementation of child care policy in Zagreb. In partnership with other organisations, they have pressed city administration to organise a special session of the Committee for Education and Sport with the topic of prices for child care services in Zagreb. Instead of paying the cost of services for parents on the income test basis, they insisted, and the Committee concluded that it should be means tested (income, property, etc.). With such impact, the proposal of increasing the cost for such services on an income test basis has not been accepted2.
Also, RODA put on the agenda question of quality of child care services in terms of space per child in kindergartens, quality of food for children and educational programmes. In representing users of services, they are very much respected as a stakeholder and gradually they are witnessing a process of quality service improvement.
After RODA’s actions, civil society organisations of parents have become a visible part of the governance structure of the local welfare system and it made the local welfare system more vibrant and responsive to public and, specifically, to users of social services. As the media were covering all debates and events, the general public got the sense of the importance of civil society organisations and, in this case, of self-organised mothers.
This case, for the first time, opened debate on public issues where citizens have vested interests and show strengths of civil organisation to address public issues and to influence policy process. With this experience, a new culture of communication of the city with civil society organisations might be seen.