For 80 years, ChildFund International has worked to improve the well-being of children worldwide, evolving its approach according to children’s needs and the context they live in. Our long experience and more recent child protection initiatives tell us that it takes much more than the proverbial “village” to create safe environments for children. Here are three things we’ve learned.
1. Participant voices have great power to guide, inspire, and affirm development work.
In the early 2000s, we carried out a child poverty study that transformed how we work. Its key findings suggested that children’s experience of poverty differs from that of adults. Where an adult defines poverty as lacking key resources such as money, water, health care, and the like, a child tends to more acutely experience the social and emotional backlash of economic deprivation: The shame of being excluded and stigmatized by peers, the fear of increased vulnerability to violence, and the disappointment of broken dreams.
We responded to these voices by crafting a new approach to development, tailoring its efforts to the unique needs of children at each age. Children’s voices have shaped our work ever since.
Recently, what children have been telling us has guided us toward a new focus: The critical need to end violence against them. Understanding how violence can derail developmental gains, we realized that we would have to build a child protection emphasis into our work across all the sectors we touch: Health and nutrition, education, and livelihoods.
To end violence against children worldwide, however, meant adding our voice to those of other organizations on the global stage. In 2015, as the United Nations worked to create the Sustainable Development Goals, ChildFund and its sister organizations in the ChildFund Alliance joined other child-focused agencies such as UNICEF, World Vision, Save the Children, and SOS Children’s Villages in advocating that ending violence against children be made a priority among the new goals. SDG 16.2, on ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children, now calls much-needed attention to an issue that the earlier Millennium Development Goals failed to address.
“Complementing talk with action multiplies the power of advocacy; with hands-on experience, policy makers can become believers.”—
Now that world leaders have received the child protection message and enshrined it in a target, governments must develop and implement policies and protection systems that keep children safe. ChildFund and its 25 country offices continue to advocate with their national and local governments, often alongside children and youth, to create this new normal, a world where children can grow up free from violence.
How to leverage participant voices in development? Ask them about their needs through both quantitative and qualitative research, conversations, and group discussions. Then involve program participants meaningfully — as partners — in the response.
The qualitative piece has been especially important for ChildFund because without it we might not have become as acutely aware of the impact of violence on children’s development. Quantitative research is useful for measuring concrete indicators such as health and educational outcomes, but socioemotional, psychological aspects are more nuanced, harder to capture, and no less valuable.
2. Participation, both local and governmental, inspires ownership that then leads to scalability.
Governments generally have well-intended policies, but they often face challenges in putting resources behind those policies. NGOs, from local to international, can be valuable partners in turning a government’s good intentions into reality for the people they serve. Such partnerships reinforce and enliven change.
Worldwide, ChildFund works through local partner organizations rooted in the communities they serve. These long-term relationships are critical to our work: Who better to understand a community’s needs than its residents? And to whom are those residents more likely to listen — their neighbors running the community organization or the INGO staffers from outside?
In a recent pilot project we implemented in Honduras, our local partners were the first key to achieving buy-in among participants, from community members to national government actors and even donors. The project would eventually lead to the nationwide adoption of a methodology to reduce violence at school and at home.
Honduras’ murder rate among adolescents aged 10-19 is the second highest worldwide. Violence is a driving force behind the irregular migration of thousands of Honduran children; 44 percent of repatriated children report violence as the reason they left. And the first violence a child experiences is in the home — physical, emotional, and sexual. This violence influences how a child behaves, so by the time they get to school, they have already learned to use violence as a coping mechanism, perpetuating a generational cycle.
In 2014, in Honduras’ rural Santa Barbara department, the German Agency for International Cooperation piloted a school-based violence prevention methodology designed by the University of Oregon and Washington. The approach is called Miles de Manos, which means Thousands of Hands. ChildFund Honduras operates its sponsorship programs through local partner organizations there, so we were well-positioned to participate. The methodology aimed to teach parents and teachers new competencies to reduce and mitigate violent behavior in adults and thereby change children’s behavior.
The initiative attracted the attention of the United States Agency for International Development, which wanted to test the methodology in high-risk urban areas. To do so, USAID funded our next project, called PUENTES, a name which translates to Parents and Teachers Joining Forces for Children in Social Spaces.
Over 18 months in some of the country’s most dangerous areas, PUENTES applied the Miles de Manos methodology in 36 urban schools and tested it against another 36 control schools, reaching 265 teachers and 16,094 children. Honduras’ Ministry of Education served as an integral partner throughout PUENTES, working with us to choose the participant schools, staff the project, train facilitators, and observe the parent, teacher, and joint parent-teacher sessions. Results included a 56 percent reduction in violent incidents at school. Parents became more involved with school communities, and at home, they used less physical punishment while also communicating more with children and providing greater supervision. From a baseline of 70 percent, at the end of the project 90 percent of students reported that they felt safe at home and in school. It was important to hear this from the students. Perception is reality, and the perception of safety becomes a psychological protective factor, reducing stress.
How to inspire duty bearers’ participation? Invest in local relationships from the beginning of — or, ideally, before — any project. Our local partners’ presence and good work positioned us for donor attention that made the PUENTES project possible. Usually, it’s the other way around — development initiatives proceed from the top down, starting with a sophisticated proposal or high-level relationship rather than from the grassroots up. This is a story of how a strong local relationship can be a driver of change, not just a result of it.
3. Involving duty bearers promotes sustainability.
Complementing talk with action multiplies the power of advocacy; with hands-on experience, policy makers can become believers. We are certain that the education ministry’s deep involvement with PUENTES, especially its firsthand encounters with the parents and teachers who participated, was instrumental in the Honduran government’s decision to build the Miles de Manos approach into the country’s national curriculum. The approach will become part of the government’s strategy for its existing “parenting school” to teach parents competencies for creating safer home environments and supporting their children’s development. With the government enacting the methodology as policy, making it compulsory and supporting it, the work will now benefit families and schools across the country. It’s a huge advocacy win, and it happened thanks to the engagement of government stakeholders in the process.
But be aware that building these relationships can be complicated. In Honduras, there were several units of the government tasked with fighting violence, so it was challenging to decide which of them to invite to the table. We worked with the Ministry of Education’s central office, but we also had to work for buy-in from the district and state levels, as well as from every school principal to allow teachers to participate.
Although PUENTES worked with the adults around children rather than directly with children, it still delivered what children have been asking of us. For the last several years, ChildFund Alliance members have surveyed children worldwide on issues that matter to them, and in 2015, one of the questions was, “How can adults protect children better?” Many children answered, “Love children more.” We think parents and teachers have learned practical ways to do exactly that.
We know widespread change won’t happen overnight, but as parents begin seeing each other approach family life in these fresh ways, instead of with the violence that has been the norm for previous generations — and as they share their experiences and listen to each other — we feel hopeful that schools and families across Honduras will buy in to these new ways.
It’s about behavior change, and it all begins with listening. We as adults have a significant role in influencing the behavior of children — when we change, they change. When we don’t change, it’s really difficult to expect a different type of society at the end of the day.
You can learn about ChildFund’s work here or attend their 80th anniversary event in Washington, D.C., on April 25 at 3 p.m. in the Russell Senate Office Building, Room 485.