Five years on: Sarah Lilley reflects on what we have learned about community action to protect children.

Sarah Lilley is Deputy Head of Child Protection, Save the Children UK and Coordinator for the Inter-Agency Learning Initiative on Community-Based Child Protection Mechanisms and Child Protection Systems.

Five years ago: a weak evidence base and an emerging consensus on the need to strengthen community-based child protection mechanisms and child protection systems

Five years ago, community-based child protection mechanisms – such as child protection committees, child welfare committees and child protection focal points – were already well established as the main community-level mechanisms supported by many international child protection agencies and donors. Despite the widespread nature of this model, it was also generally recognised that programming using this approach was drawing from a very limited and somewhat disparate evidence base. So whilst community-based initiatives and efforts to keep children safe were considered to be key in children’s improved protection, it was not well understood exactly if, how or why these mechanisms were effective.

Around this time, strengthening national child protection systems was still a relatively new concept, but starting to gain ground, with a small number of countries in Asia and Africa undertaking national child protection systems mapping exercises. This new focus on approaching child protection systemically also emphasised the key role which communities can and do play in protecting children, and included a focus on identifying the links between community-based child protection mechanisms and national child protection systems.

In response to this particular context and with the desire to identify promising community-based child protection mechanisms and support a systems approach, a group of agencies including Oak Foundation, Save the Children, UNICEF, USAID and World Vision International came together to conduct the first ever interagency review of community-based child protection mechanisms.

The resulting 2009 report ‘What are we learning about community based child protection mechanisms?’ confirmed that the evidence base on community-based child protection mechanisms was indeed very weak.  There were very few quality studies and evaluations dealing with this aspect of child protection and almost no evidence to tell us which community-based child protection mechanisms could be considered effective models and why.  This lack of evidence also meant that the pivotal role of community-based child protection mechanisms highlighted by child protection systems thinking was based more on theory than on actual learning.

Five years of progress: The beginnings of a more robust evidence base and some key learning to guide us

Five years on there has been a significant increase in quality evidence and learning around community-based child protection mechanisms. Since the 2009 review above was released, studies of community-based child protection mechanisms and their relationship with child protection systems have been undertaken in over ten countries across the world (download a table of studies here). Not only are these studies significant and important contributions to a previously minimal evidence base, but they are also evidence of many child protection agencies’ commitment to working together in order to improve protection for children at the community level.

Whilst the studies which have been undertaken in the last five years have been diverse in terms of contexts and approaches, a single common message has clearly emerged from this body of work – namely that there is a gap, sometimes called a disconnect, between community efforts to protect children and formal child protection systems. We have also learned that this gap between the community and formal systems can significantly weaken the effective functioning of an entire national system, which affirms the important role which communities do play in ensuring the safety of children.

The studies have taught us that communities for the most part rely on their own resources to protect children and that there are a range of barriers – including a lack of trust, difficulties in getting to service providers, a perception that many child protection issues are a private affair, and negative experiences of government officials – which are preventing communities from engaging with formal systems and services.

Where to for the next five years?

The child protection sector has learnt much about community-based child protection mechanisms in the last five years, with the initial 2009 review and the Interagency Learning Initiative providing the impetus for this learning momentum.

Now that we have overwhelming evidence of the gap between communities and the formal child protection system, as well as an understanding of how this disconnect can weaken an entire national child protection system, we are faced with the challenge of how to close this gap.

This challenge is by no means insubstantial, as despite recent progress there are still a very limited number of robustly evaluated and documented models which strengthen community-based child protection mechanisms and their links to formal child protection systems. We still need more evidence to guide us effectively.

Before we can roll-out and scale-up effective approaches which support closer linkages between communities and formal government child protection systems, we need to undertake initial work with communities and governments to develop and robustly test a range of models in different contexts. For instance the Interagency Learning Initiative’s work in Sierra Leone and Kenya is currently testing and evaluating an approach which was developed by community members.

The last five years have proved to be just the beginning of a much longer journey of learning and evidence gathering on community-based child protection mechanisms. A sustained joint commitment across the sectors is required to generate additional quality evidence and learning before we can arrive at a point where our programming is truly evidence based. And whilst we can say with more confidence that we are now heading in the right direction, we still have a long way to go.

You can download a summary of global studies undertaken since 2009 here.