Community participation in child protection

[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As schools strengthen their child safeguarding efforts, they must work together with families and communities as key allies in the critical responsibility of protecting children. Sometimes family, neighbors and other community members play an obvious role in keeping children safe—for example, when a 12-year-old girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger but manages to scream, and other community members come to her rescue and eventually capture her assailant. However, just as it would be unthinkable for the community to remain silent in moments of crisis like this, it is equally important that the community be actively involved in preventing and responding to more hidden forms of abuse that unfortunately are too often perpetrated by teachers, staff or other adults in positions of trust.

The Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) underscores that community participation is critical to the effectiveness and sustainability of education programs. As such, community members must be supported to participate actively, transparently and without discrimination in all stages of education responses (INEE Minimum Standards for Education, 2010). Community-led approaches are grounded in the idea of people power, that is, the ability of ordinary people, even under difficult circumstances, to organize themselves, define their main problems or challenges and collectively address those problems (Wessels, 2018). In that view, structured community-led forums are the best place to identify local protection issues and develop the most appropriate solutions in cooperation with schools (“Role of School Management Committees,” 2016).

School Management Committees (SMCs) and Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) are important tools for enhancing school governance—particularly with respect to leadership, management and decision-making. These community structures are developed through a series of comprehensive social mobilization activities which encourage and guide communities in the participatory processes of managing a school. They normally consist of seven to eight members from diverse interest groups: SMCs often include a school administrator or principal, parent representatives, teachers, social workers and community elders. SMCs provide a natural and important opportunity to involve the community in making schools safe for children. SMCs and PTAs should participate in every stage of child safeguarding and protection efforts, from the development of child safeguarding policies to overseeing that these procedures are implemented, monitored and updated.

At the stage of policy development, SMCs and PTAs can help identify the risks children face and establish effective steps to reduce those risks, including reporting mechanisms that are culturally appropriate and accessible to all. They can also ensure that children’s voices are heard, through encouraging the establishment of child-led groups in the school and community and by soliciting input from children to feed into SMC discussions.

Policies only have a positive impact if they are put into practice, so SMCs and PTAs are even more important at the stage of implementation. Since SMCs and PTAs play a key role in budgeting and disbursement of funding, they should be in the forefront advocating for resources to be set aside for disseminating policies that have been translated into local and child-friendly languages. They should also ensure that both teachers and students are regularly made aware of the types of abuse children face and that the school has set up the necessary reporting and response mechanisms.

Over the past two decades, both of Kenya’s refugee camps, Kakuma (pop.188,000) and Dadaab (pop. 211,086), have witnessed growing community participation in protecting children through schools. Not only have these community structures strengthened refugee schools in numerous ways, but they have also proven to be an important tool for raising awareness about and addressing cultural norms that marginalize certain groups of children and young people—for example, highlighting and responding to the distinctive challenges facing children living with disabilities, child-headed households and child mothers in accessing education (“Good Practices,” 2015). In Kakuma, parents who undergo SMC training expressed feeling more confident in their roles and responsibilities in engaging the school in cases of child abuse.

In their role as decision-makers, SMCs and PTAs can influence decisions about appropriate response actions when a teacher has been found culpable of abusing or exploiting children—for example, by pushing for dismissal or arrest and conviction of perpetrators in a case of serious abuse or corporal punishment of students by teachers.

Beyond school-based groups like SMCs and PTAs, community-based child protection groups are key players in ensuring children are safe not only in school but even the surrounding community (“A Common Responsibility,” 2008). Community-based child protection groups bring together volunteers who aim to improve the protection and wellbeing of children in a village, urban neighborhood or other community. They are known by a variety of names—for example, orphan and vulnerable children committees, child protection committees, child welfare committees, community care committees and anti-trafficking committees. Despite having different names, these groups are mostly very similar, with the common aim of protecting and caring for vulnerable children. For example, such committees might mobilize adults to accompany children to prevent them from being attacked when going or returning from school. It is important for schools to also engage and collaborate with these kinds of groups, to raise awareness of key child protection issues in the community or identify children who may not be attending schools and refer them for assistance.

Communities must not be left out or reduced to mere rubber stamps in the day-to-day management of school-based initiatives. This is especially true when it comes to child safeguarding. Since communities vary enormously in each context, they must develop their own ways of working that fit their context. Schools form only a part—though a very significant one—of a holistic social reality, so they must not work in isolation from the community. Rather, they must actively involve parents and community to understand how child abuse and its prevention in the school context is related to its dynamic manifestations within the community. This will ensure that school-based safeguarding efforts are culturally sensitive, locally appropriate and as effective as possible.

Martin Juma is a short-term consultant with MCC programs on child protection. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn more

“A Common Responsibility: The Role of Community-Based Child Protection Groups in Protecting Children from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.” London: International Save the Children Alliance, 2008. Available for download at https://resourcecentre.savethe children.net/node/1245/pdf/1245.pdf.

Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery. New York: UNICEF, 2010. Available for download in multiple languages at https://inee.org/resources/inee-minimum-standards.

“Role of School Management Committees (SMCs) and Local Governing Bodies in Violence Prevention within School: Evidences from Nepal.” Regional Expert Roundtable on Prevention of Violence in Schools in South Asia, April 25-27, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Available for download at http://www.knowviolenceinchildhood.org/about/ downloadpdf/ Day%201%20Session%204%20KBNepal%20Role%20of%20School%20 Management% 20Committee%20and%20Local%20Governance.pdf.

UNHCR. “Good Practices for Strengthening Community Participation in Education In Kenya.” January 15, 2015. Available at http://coexist.co.ke/files/GP_Kenya_ComParticipation_FINAL_DRAFT_Jan_15_2015.pdf.

Wessells, M.G. “A Guide for Supporting Community-Led Child Protection Processes.” New York: Child Resilience Alliance, 2018. Available at http://www.socialserviceworkforce.org/system/files/resource/files/Guide-Community-Led-Child-Protection.pdf.

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