In humanitarian settings, children face a multitude of risks including separation from caregivers, family violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation, violence in schools and communities, living and working on the streets, and an inability to meet basic needs. Efforts to strengthen national child protection systems have taken a top-down approach of imposing formal, government-managed services which are often characterized by their low use. Dr. Michael Wessells, Mailman School professor of population and family health, examines an alternative approach of community-driven, bottom-up work that enables collaboration, greater use of formal services, and high levels of community ownership. Dr. Lindsay Stark, associate professor of population and family health, led the work on outcomes measurement. Findings are published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
Using a two-arm randomized design to test the community-driven intervention, the idea was to learn about community processes and resources and to build on these in the intervention phase. Qualitative data came from monitors living in the communities, group reflections by community members, and interviews with children, adults, and health workers. With UNICEF’s support the researchers collaborated extensively with the local community experts and worked closely with the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs and the National Child Protection Committee, which included representatives from child protection actors such as Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International, and Goal.
A frequently expressed frustration by child protection practitioners is that despite efforts to train local people how to protect children in accord with national laws and international standards, local people tend not to use what they have been taught and rely on non-formal practices that are poorly aligned with the formal system. “What is needed is a fresh approach to enabling collaboration and alignment with formal aspects of the child protection system,” said Wessells, who has conducted extensive research on the impacts of war and political violence on children and regularly advises UN agencies, governments, and donors on issues of child protection and psychosocial support. “The action research we undertook in Sierra Leone represents such a fresh approach of community-driven action that is animated by community ownership, builds on community assets and resources, and features the role of children and young people as change agents. When communities themselves drive the process of linking with formal stakeholders, local people develop a new sense of ownership for formal services and a strong sense of partnership with formal stakeholders.”
Dr. Wessells suggests that this bottom-up approach to system strengthening not only enables the use of formal services but also helps to unlock the practical capacities of communities. “Collectively, we will do a better job of protecting children if we step out of our expert role and facilitate the community-driven action and the related social transformation that supports vulnerable children.”