Grounding protection in the local context

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Child protection efforts must be shaped according to the unique challenges and opportunities of specific contexts. Eastern Europe provides many examples of how contextual realities can both facilitate and hinder the process of accompanying partners in implementing their own child protection policies. In Eastern Europe, the history of communism and socialism has left a legacy of legal frameworks, local regulations and social institutions which govern child protection policies and practices. In this context, one would imagine that these laws and institutions should facilitate the quick and simple adoption of child protection initiatives; however, this very history of imperialism complicates these efforts due community distrust of authorities and top-down policies. A history of authoritarian governance requires MCC to encourage community-driven processes for the adoption of child protection policies.

Most of the places MCC works in Eastern Europe have been the borderlands—areas conquered, claimed and held by many vast foreign empires. These empires have imported and enforced laws and regulations without fully incorporating them into the local culture, traditions or norms. As a result, the peoples of Eastern Europe can view cooperating with the ruling authority as a betrayal to one’s family, neighbors and broader community.

Another challenge is a relatively narrow understanding of protection: many authorities see protection as simply taking children out of harm’s way, without considering the value of prevention, education or sensitization. This may be partly due to lack of knowledge: for example, government departments of social work and police may not know about different types of abuse, especially emotional and psychological abuse. Another factor is simply a lack of resources in the face of many pressing social problems.

Finally, many places in Eastern Europe are dealing with the relatively new transition from a socialist and communist past. This new reality has stripped the well-ordered social organization of the past and left room for corruption, exploitation, unemployment and the erosion of social services and stability. As a result, apathy and conflict have increased. In light of these challenges, MCC East Europe has been conscious of not imposing our agenda from the outside, by allowing for flexibility and grace. At the same time, MCC has also been clear that child protection is a priority that we expect our partners to pursue.

Working at child protection with partners begins with a series of conversations that take into account different norms and values and different understandings about how those values can be expressed. For example, one common norm in Eastern Europe is that corporal punishment is an appropriate and expected way to discipline children. Some MCC partners are connected to churches that interpret Proverbs 13:24—“Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (NRSV)—to reinforce the idea that corporal punishment is required.

While some partners in the region support the use of corporal punishment within certain guidelines, others denounce this form of discipline. The partners who explicitly avoid it have procedures in place for selecting staff, clear guidelines of defining acceptable and inappropriate behavior and have instituted relevant training for staff. These partners emphasize how important it was for them to generate their own procedures and guidelines
and caution that standards imposed from outside funders would not be successful in sensitizing people to make a change.

Keeping in mind sensitivity to the local context, there are two possible, though non-exclusive, ways MCC’s partners can participate in effecting social change to establish meaningful protections within their societies. The first way is to integrate with strong local campaigns that include widespread sensitization involving training for police, social workers,teachers, clergy, politicians, parents and children about their role and
responsibilities in this system. This model builds upon work done over the past decades in North America. It is not something one person or small group alone can fully implement, but there are some indications that Ukraine may be starting to engage in this sort of process with some assistance from the United Nations.

Another possible approach builds upon the work done by some of MCC’s peacebuilding partners, who work subversively to provoke social change when public leaders and society at large are not already on board. These partners work on empowering individuals to be engaged citizens who question social problems of nationalism and ethnic division. A similar approach could also be used to increase protections for children, by working with adults and children to explore their values and find ways of interacting in more peaceful ways. This model sees protection not as avoidance of abuse but as building up individuals and communities: not as policing laws, but as empowering strong local people. This model runs counter to the authoritarian past in which a population’s role was to wait for solutions to come down from the top. It is a challenging model, but is also arguably an approach that leads to longer-term, more lasting solutions.

Krystan Pawlikowski is co-representative for MCC East Europe.