Of what value is a computer if you don’t have regular access to it? If you don’t have an operating system, some programs, virus protection, electricity, and increasingly, internet? Of what value is a school building without caring and qualified teachers, a relevant curriculum, engaged parents, students who desire an education, families that see the value in education for their children, and a community that is willing to take a lead in ensuring that the above happens?
Hardware without software is pretty much a waste of resources.
Child protection systems follow the same logic. For example, a legal framework or a free, national helpline or an SMS-based system for child abuse reporting can be set up, and the government can express great support for it. But if there are no resources to manage it, no one answers the phone, operators or administrators are not trained, there is no response after reporting an incident, laws protecting children are not operationalized or enforced, there is corruption within the governmental systems, authorities are the actual abusers, the population is unaware that the laws or helpline exist or has had negative experiences with them, or people do not think violence is worth reporting or ending, it is like having a computer without any software, an old impractical machine that eats up resources with slow or nil results, or a device with a virus or corrupted files.
One of the areas where I’m currently supporting colleagues with ICTs (information and communication technology) is prevention of violence against children. In many cases, we are working in countries with weak government support and systems, making it very difficult to rely on government child protection services. Even in places where there is a reasonably strong national system, child protection services cannot rely only on official channels and systems managed by government duty bearers. Communities, traditional leaders and authorities, families and children themselves need to be involved and active in their own protection.
In the organization where I work, we’ve had a lot of internal discussion, taking a strong look at our interventions and programs, talking with children, youth, communities, civil society, local and national authorities, and really challenging ourselves to find the best way to work with and strengthen local, district and national child protection efforts.
I was really happy when my colleague in Ghana shared with me a review titled “What Are We Learning about Protecting Children in the Community: An Interagency Review of Evidence on Community-Based Child Protection Mechanisms” written by Mike Wessells, and commissioned by several agencies. I might be coming late to the party, as it was published in 2009, but better late than never.
Community-based child protection mechanisms, the report explains, “are at the forefront of efforts to address child protection in emergency, transitional, and development contexts worldwide. The mobilization of such grassroots groups has become a common programming response in many settings, particularly in areas affected by armed conflict or displacement. For international agencies, they are a favoured approach in places where local and national government is unable or unwilling to fulfill children’s rights to care and protection.”
Community-based child protection groups “are a vital means of mobilizing communities around children’s protection and wellbeing. Organised with care and in a contextually appropriate manner, they make it possible to: identify, prevent and respond to significant child protection risks; mobilise communities around child protection issues; and provide a base of local support and action that can be taken to scale through links with other community groups and with national child protection systems.
According to the report, not enough is known about how these groups operate, how effective they are, and how they could be strengthened, so this review was commissioned to pull together existing learning and evidence. A stated limitation of the report is that it is highly focused on initiatives started or supported by external agencies. I’m looking forward to the second phase of the review which will focus on groups initiated and run by local communities without external support. It should offer up even more interesting information.
Another stated limitation of the review is the absence of a strong evidence base on community-based child protection groups. Not having sufficient evidence of what works and what doesn’t means that potential remains high for unintended harm caused by child protection efforts. Potential risks have been identified when agencies excessively target particular categories of children, impose external concepts which can create community backlash, and disregard existing local practices that protect children. This will also be addressed in Phase 2.
7 things that make child protection groups more effective
The review was able to identify 7 factors that influence the effectiveness of a community-based child protection group (I encourage you to check out the full report here):
1) Community Ownership: as in most situations, the higher the community ownership, the more effective.
2) Building on existing resources: a concerning tendency was for external agencies to start new groups without finding out what child protection mechanisms already exist in the community; some programs seemed to disrespect and marginalize local culture and didn’t do enough to build on positive existing practices.
3) Support from leaders: engaging traditional leaders is tricky and necessary, especially when child rights and child protection run counter to traditional practices.
4) Child participation: in most cases child participation in community based protection groups was not high quality; when it was present it improved quality and impact.
5) Management of issues of power, diversity and inclusivity: the more effective groups were the more diverse and inclusive ones that invested great time and effort in ensuring power issues were managed.
6) Resources: to be effective, groups needed both human and material resources; however, external agencies should carefully think through how much and what they resource to avoid creating parallel systems or undermining existing systems and community ownership.
7) Linkages: links to both formal and non-formal systems and structures were beneficial.
The document goes on to look at scale and sustainability, concluding that community-based child protection groups are a scalable model of benefiting significant numbers of at-risk children. It lists 3 different models for scale that have worked especially for HIV and AIDS related work. Sustainability of both outcomes and processes were a challenge for most of the initiatives studied for the review, and community ownership was the most important enabler in terms of sustainability. Unpaid local volunteer groups, which drew on existing community organizations and which worked in partnership with local traditional and religious leadership seemed to be the most sustainable.
Six significant challenges were identified for agencies supporting community-based child protection systems: strengthening the evidence base; better enabling community groups; improving sustainability by looking at long-term outcomes rather than short-term funding efforts and avoiding parallel systems created by external agencies; having more respect for community values, processes and capacities; facilitating community ownership even in emergency situations; changing donor and agency practices around community-led child protection groups, including the tendency for short-term injections of high amounts of funding, and stigmatizing certain ‘categories’ of children by excessive targeting.
A series of recommendations for practitioners and donors is listed in the review based on the above challenges and gaps.
This is already quite a useful document for practitioners, agencies and donors working in the area of child protection or other types of community-based protection and support groups. Phase 2 should shed even more light on what makes for successful community-led and community-based protection services.
The author of the review is Mike Wessells. Agencies participating in the review include USAID Displaced Orphans and Children’s Fund, Oak Foundation, Save the Children, UNICEF and World Vision International. The review summary is available at this link, and the full report (.pdf) is available here.
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