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Regional themes > Children and education Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Save the Children

Children at the Centre: A guide to supporting community groups caring for vulnerable children

Save the Children


SARPN acknowledges Save the Children as a source of this document:
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There are a rapidly growing number of vulnerable children across Africa facing multiple violations of their rights. They suffer hunger, ill health, violence, neglect, loss of access to education and opportunities for play, and have little chance of a successful and happy future. An estimated 12 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, countless millions more children are living in households with sick parents and are helping to care for them. Millions more African children are affected by conflict, famine and poverty. The total number of orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa was 48.3 million at the end of 2005.1 Although anti-retroviral treatment offers hope that fewer HIV-positive people will become sick in the future, there are countless children whose lives have already been disrupted.

Governments bear a responsibility to care for these children, but too often they do not. For centuries, communities in Africa have helped neighbours in crisis. But the huge numbers of children in need mean that neighbourly support is no longer enough. As a response, community members are getting together to assist children and their families within their communities. Community initiatives can provide various kinds of assistance including parenting, protection, psychosocial and spiritual support, and material assistance.

However, these community groups require assistance to most effectively care for children. They need support to deliver the best responses, reaching the most vulnerable children over the long term. Children at the Centre is primarily written for those working in agencies (supporting organisations) that are currently supporting, or wishing to support, the establishment of community groups to support vulnerable children. In this guide, ‘community groups’ refers to collectives of community members who are caring for vulnerable children.

Save the Children, like many other organisations working with vulnerable children, promotes community-based responses for vulnerable children as the first resort. There are a growing number of excellent resources that provide clear guidance on community mobilisation for supporting organisations.2 However, these resources do not focus on the principles that are essential to working with children, which are:

  • Child participation: Many programmes providing care for children see them as ‘victims’ or passive beneficiaries who need help (ie, who are literally ‘helpless’). They rarely ask children themselves what they wish. Engaging children improves the quality of the response because children are able to express their wishes and views. This often brings in perspectives and creative solutions to problems that adults on their own would not have thought about.

  • Child protection: One of the most important roles of a community group is to ensure that all children with whom they are in contact are safe within the interventions being implemented, and that these interventions remove the children from harm. Harm includes many forms of abuse and exploitation: physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and exploitation such as harmful work.

  • Comprehensive services: Children, families and communities alone cannot meet all children’s rights. Basic services such as health, education, shelter, livelihoods and economic opportunities are essential for children to grow into healthy adults. All work in communities requires the support of, and links with, these basic services.

  • Long-term commitment: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines children as those under 18 years of age. Furthermore, as a result of the continuing impact of HIV, ongoing conflicts and other factors, there will likely be a large, and growing, number of children requiring support for years to come. As such, any commitment to supporting vulnerable children requires a 15–20-year commitment. This means developing responses that are sustainable over the long term.
This guide is primarily written for those within supporting organisations already working with, or wishing to promote the establishment of, community groups to care for and protect vulnerable children. It highlights the role of supporting organisations in assisting communities to take action with children. Together, they can be empowered to demand services in the best interests of each child and ensure that the appropriate groups, including government, provide these services.

This guide is not a ‘how to’ manual. Rather, it draws together experiences from children, from community group members (both adults and children) and from staff of supporting organisations. These experiences and reflections will provide suggestions that can be adapted to different contexts to deliver quality and long-term care for children. The text is interspersed with specific examples of community groups working in different countries.

The guide identifies key actions that a supporting organisation should consider to enable community groups to:

  • work with children as partners – listen to girls and boys of all ages and find out their needs and hopes, understand the challenges they face, and identify and prioritise strategies to address these challenges
  • ensure that all group activities protect children from harm
  • be transparent and accountable to children, and other members of the community
  • make realistic and manageable plans that will benefit children
  • make the best use of resources that already exist within the group and the local community, and successfully access additional resources when necessary
  • see what they are achieving for children and what is not working well, and discuss how to improve the work
  • advocate for changes within the community and with others at local and higher level so that children’s rights are realised.
This guide is divided into five chapters:

Chapter 1 - Protecting children in the community
Chapter 2 - Involving children as active partners
Chapter 3 - Supporting community groups
Chapter 4 - Approaches in action
Chapter 5 - Useful resources

Children at the Centre is part of the First Resort series, This series focuses on the needs and rights of children who, for a wide variety of reasons, are lacking adequate parental care. In many cases, they will already have become separated and may be living outside their families, eg, in institutions, with relatives or on the street. These children are of particular concern to governments and to the international community because they are deprived of the protection normally provided by parents.

Children at the Centre provides practical examples in community-based child protection, with particular attention to child participation.

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