Strengthening the Frontline for Child Protection

ASEAN adopts its first Declaration for social workers

Rachel Harvey, Regional Child Protection Advisor, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
Myanmar social worker
17 November 2020

As violence, abuse, neglect, exploitation and family breakdown increased during COVID-19 and containment measures imposed to halt its spread, social workers were at the front line of the response putting themselves in harm’s way to provide vital support.

While their critical role in assisting and protecting the most vulnerable children and families has been evident, so have the significant gaps that persist in social services and the social service workforce in the region. As the socio-economic impact of the pandemic grows, these gaps will exacerbate the precarious situation of many children, families and marginalized groups.

Therefore, the adoption of the Hanoi Declaration for Strengthening Social Work for Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN by Heads of State during the 37th Summit is a timely and much needed commitment to invest in and expand social work and the social service workforce in the region.

The Declaration recognises the critical role social work plays to support the most vulnerable and marginalised communities; to eradicate poverty and inequality; and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, leaving no one behind.

Philippines social worker

Under-resourced, under-staffed and under-supported

Child protection systems can only support and strengthen family units and protect children from harm and social injustice if staffed by a strong, supported workforce with the mandate, skills and resources to identify, prevent and manage risks, and respond to situations of vulnerability. 

However, UNICEF’s 2019 regional mapping found that social service workforces are often under-resourced, under-staffed and under-supported. While all countries have developed their social welfare systems and invested in training frontline social workers, insufficient attention has been paid to identifying, planning and investing in workforce requirements - there are simply not enough qualified social workers to meet population needs in the region.

In most South-East Asian countries, social work is still not recognised as a profession by law. Instead, social workers are viewed as carrying out charity work, which encourages inadequate resourcing, low pay and poor public perceptions of their value and contribution. There are insufficient opportunities for professional development and career progression and limited on the job supervision and coaching. Added to the intrinsically challenging nature of the job, attracting and retaining social workers is a major problem.

Strengthening the social service workforce

Social service workforce strengthening is at the heart of UNICEF’s engagement on child protection across the region. UNICEF supported the development of the Declaration and now that it has been adopted, the organisation will continue to support ASEAN and its Member States to translate the Declaration into action to ensure vulnerable children, families and marginalized groups are better protected and supported.

This includes working with Governments and partners to: identify social service workforce needs of each country; mobilise public resources to expand the workforce; reform legislation to professionalise social work; build the capacity of the workforce through quality supervision, coaching and pre-service and in-service training and education; improve recruitment and retention of social workers by increasing job satisfaction and opportunities for career development; and importantly tackle negative public perceptions of social workers.

cambodia social worker

Making a difference

Eleven-year old Dalis and 13-year old Dara live with their foster parents in Battambang province, Cambodia. Foster parents are recruited and trained by social workers in the province to provide alternative care for children who cannot safely stay with their families.

During the pandemic, social workers have provided ongoing support to foster parents to help them cope and continue caring for Dalis and Dara. This has included providing critical information on COVID-19, hygiene supplies, and learning sessions on recommended precautionary measures, as well as mental health counselling.

Dalis’ and Dara’s story shows that by valuing social workers as the heroes they are, we will help secure a better future for millions of children.


The social service workforce is: “an inclusive concept referring to a broad range of governmental and nongovernmental professionals and paraprofessionals who work with children, youth, adults, older persons, families and communities to ensure healthy development and well-being.” (Global Social Service Workforce Alliance)

Social workers are professionals with an academic degree who promote social change and development, social cohesion and the empowerment of people. In the absence of an official regulation of this profession in some countries, many other social service workforce representatives are referred to as ‘social workers,’ however it is important to reserve this professional title for qualified social workers.