My reflections on the evolution of child-protection systems

UNICEF's Director of Child Protection looks back on over 30 years of service.

Cornelius Williams
Young girls play on the swings in UNICEF's child-friendly space in Menaka, Mali.
16 March 2023

I can’t recall a particular moment or event when we shifted toward systems-centered thinking in child protection, but I can trace its origins. When I started doing this important work in the early 1990s, we did our best to respond to the issues in front of us. Whether it was working with children formerly recruited by armed groups, children separated from their loved ones or those living on the street, we did everything we could to help them and their families.

At the time, we couldn’t conceive of a systems-based approach to child protection in places where we worked – not because child protection systems didn’t exist, but because we lacked a commonly- understood systems-strengthening framework. The only child protection systems that came to our minds were those from the developed world, but the main services these “modern” systems seemed to offer centred on addressing the immediate danger to children – often by removing children from their homes and families, rather than addressing the problem holistically, using a socio-ecological perspective.

It is hard to believe that I have spent more than 30 years – a quarter century! – working in the field of child rights and child protection. During this time, I have had the privilege of working on the front lines with some of the most vulnerable populations in my home country of Sierra Leone, across Africa, and eventually assuming leadership positions to advance child protection at a global level with UNICEF. My experiences have provided me with the unique position to be able to reflect on the evolution of the child protection sector — from responding to a set of seemingly disconnected issues to the systems-focused approach we have now.

There were several important international meetings that set the stage for the move to strengthening child protection systems, but I think the actual shift had a more modest beginning: It started from the ground up. Systems-oriented work was gradually taking shape in countries such as Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka. In my home country, for example, I witnessed the emergence of child protection committee structures and child-welfare committees, where communities and local leaders organized themselves to protect children.

Another important turning point was the HIV epidemic in the late 1990s. Many of us remember how AIDS led to what was then called an “orphan” crisis. Social welfare systems were overwhelmed. While that initial response was still largely issue-focused, the wide-raging impacts of the epidemic called for broader cross-sectoral, systems-strengthening efforts. This was also the time when the post-communist welfare systems were reforming, paving the way for the deinstitutionalization of children in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Cornelius Williams at a press conference in Berlin, Germany.
Cornelius Williams at a press conference in Berlin, Germany.

Together with our partners, UNICEF began to step up to figure out how best to approach strengthening child protection systems, meeting with governments and other agencies. Large global meetings in Bucharest in 2008, Delhi in 2012
and Dakar in 2013 produced a common understanding of these systems, with several countries undertaking comprehensive mappings of their national child protection systems. At UNICEF, we started to embed child protection systems strengthening within our programmatic framework.

In 2018, UNICEF commissioned an evaluation of these efforts. While the results showed that UNICEF was doing a good job at bringing attention to the importance of strengthening child protection systems, they also indicated that to be more effective, our approach needed to be better articulated, operationalized and measurable.

The evaluation opened a new chapter for UNICEF’s approach to strengthening child protection systems by allowing UN member states to see how critical this work was to child protection. With guidance from UNICEF’s Executive Board, our team began to address recommendations of the evaluation.

We continued to consolidate our efforts and in 2021, UNICEF launched our most recent approach to strengthening child protection systems. Informed by the evaluation, this approach became a real-life example of applying theory to practice. It offers a framework that UNICEF, governments and partners can use to track progress toward strengthening child-protection systems, with the goal of these systems reaching a mature stage.

By maturity, we are talking about systems that have the architecture — policies, governance structures, resources, oversight mechanisms, reliable data, etc. — to operate flexibly, adapt and remain resilient, even during humanitarian crises. Another marker of a mature system is the emphasis placed on children’s meaningful participation – their right to be heard — and actively engaging communities to ensure the best interests of the child are met.

I have already seen how this approach resonates with our work on the ground. When I was in South Africa last year, our team showed me how they use this approach with the government to prioritize investments in child protection systems strengthening, and I met social service workers who were assisting the vulnerable affected by floods.

Agile and inclusive child protection systems can effectively respond to the most pressing challenges for our time. We are witnessing this transformation on the ground in countries like Ethiopia where UNICEF works to ensure that the child protection system becomes progressively responsive to the needs of internally displaced and refugee children alongside children from host communities. Systems must become shock resilient to be able to protect children during pandemics, extreme weather events caused by climate change and other crises.

To be sure, building the resiliency of child protection systems is more than strengthening government-led systems: It also involves localization. This means working with local NGOs, civil society organizations, community-based groups, children and youth, faith-based organizations and other formal and informal actors.

We need a better, more compelling narrative. We need urgency. We need to convince the world that inclusive, resilient, agile and adaptable child protection systems are essential — and possible. If we can do this well, there remains a real opportunity to get political and financial support for systems-strengthening efforts.

Despite all the momentum and achievements regarding systems-based work, the road ahead is uncertain. Strengthening child protection systems can only be effective with proper investment and a strong social-service workforce.

Unfortunately, social spending is often the first to go in an adverse economic situation. We’ve seen several countries reduce funding and support for the key elements of child protection systems — including the vital workforce. At the same time, governments in the global north are cutting back on development aid.

We also need to do a better job at popularizing models of strengthening child protection systems that are emerging in the global south. We need leaders in the region to use the available evidence and resources to invest in developing systems that work for them.

Despite these challenges, we are living in a time where there is unprecedented attention on the importance of caring for children and the role families play in protecting them. COVID-19 has forced politicians, the media and so many others to call attention to how important care is.

As I prepare to retire, I am extremely proud of the milestones we have achieved. A win for child protection systems is not simply a technical exercise for UNICEF or even a political victory. This is an achievement for all children, communities, governments and all those who work tirelessly to protect children.


Cornelius Williams is the Director of Child Protection at UNICEF.


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