Contemporary discussions on strengthening national child protection systems agree that community-based child protection mechanisms (CBCPMs) are fundamental elements of child protection systems.1 Because they are relatively easy to access, or perhaps are the only alternative that is available in responding to harms, CBCPMs have become frontline mechanisms for protecting children from exploitation, abuse, violence, and neglect and to promote children’s well-being.

Defined broadly, CBCPMs include all groups or networks at grassroots level that respond to and prevent child protection issues and harms to vulnerable children. These may include family supports, peer group supports, and community groups such as women’s groups, religious groups, and youth groups, as well as traditional or endogenous community processes, government mechanisms, and mechanisms such as Child Welfare Committees or Child Protection Committees initiated by national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some of these supports–family and peer group supports, for example–are non-formal since they are not part of the Government led system of child protection. Other supports, such as Chiefs and village elders in the Kenyan context, are arms of the formal, Government led system.

Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the effectiveness and use of CBCPMs and their alignment and linkage with formal aspects of wider child protection systems. In 2009, a global, interagency review of the effectiveness of CBCPMs, primarily ones such as Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) that had been facilitated by international NGOs, found a paucity of quality evidence. It also reported that CWCs were frequently set up in parallel with existing mechanisms, without appropriate efforts to learn about and build upon what was already there. As a result, CWCs tended to be unsustainable. Preliminary evidence suggested that where CWCs were effective and sustainable, they were ‘owned’ by the community and linked with government led mechanisms such as district level Child Protection Networks that received referrals of difficult cases and helped to build the capacities of the CWCs.

This gap in knowledge about CBCPMs is problematic since an understanding of the use, effectiveness, and sustainability of CBCPMs is essential for improving practice and policy in regard to strengthening child protection systems. It is widely agreed that CBCPMs should complement, link and collaborate with, and align with formal parts of a national child protection system. Yet the question remains: do they in fact do these things? A crucial step in systems strengthening is to learn about the views and practices of local people–not what they ought to do but what they actually do in regard to child protection. In other words, there is a need to focus more on function, that is, on how people perceive childhood and harms to children, and what actually happens when particular harms occur. In addition to indicating whether the child protection system is working in the intended manner, such learning could help to identify obstacles to and limits on the effective functioning of the child protection system, and help to guide efforts at strengthening the child protection system in ways that yield tangible improvements in children’s well-being.

To address this knowledge gap and to help strengthen policy and practice around child protection, the Interagency Learning Initiative is implementing action research in Kenya and Sierra Leone (see Annex 1). The first stage of the research, which is the focus of this report, involves systematic learning about existing CBCPMs and their linkage with formal, government led aspects of the wider child protection system. Subsequently, randomly selected communities will choose a child protection issue to address and will design and lead the implementation of an intervention that includes an appropriate link with the formal system. Before the intervention has begun, and following two years of implementation, children’s well-being and risk outcomes will be measured using a survey instrument that provides quantitative data. Following a quasi-experimental design, matched communities that do not engage immediately in a community driven implementation process will be tracked over the same period of time using the survey instrument. A unique feature of this process, is the use of population-based measures of children’s risk and well-being that are based in part on local views of harms to children and children’s well-being. This public health approach to child protection measurement could be instrumental in ensuring that steps to strengthen the child protection system produce measurable improvements in children’s protection and well-being.

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