Welfare warriors join forces to protect vulnerable children
UNICEF is supporting social welfare workers to make changes that aim to leave no child behind, especially those hardest to reach and most at-risk
Viqueque, Timor-Leste – Standing proudly before their village’s landmark green and orange church, an unassuming group of public servants gather to share their experiences of being part of the Social Welfare Workforce Programme. Just as a group of superheroes are more powerful through the collective strength of their complementary powers, so too are these child rights defenders.
Supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion (MSSI), the Social Welfare Workforce is comprised of healthcare workers, teachers, police officers, local leaders, gender focal points, representatives from various civil society organisations and formal MSSI child protection officers and social animators. Together, they are breaking down barriers and supporting vulnerable children, their families and communities.
Collectively, the workforce’s influence and reach within the community in Ossu administrative post, Viqueque Municipality, helps them to support strong and healthy families and communities, reduce violence and work in harmony with positive traditional beliefs and values while ensuring that the rights of the child are fulfilled. This has not always been the case. The Social Welfare Workforce Training, part of the operationalisation of the Child and Family Welfare Policy, has helped to strengthen and streamline the systems essential to protecting children.
“Before the training, we would each be doing our own work separately. But afterwards we started to understand what each of our roles is in protecting children, and how we can work together,” says Juliana Soares, a Child Protection Officer with MSSI. “We formed formal partnerships with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, and the police, so that we can [effectively] distribute the work and identify the roles of each partner to prioritize the best interest of the child.
“Now, if there’s a child who has experienced abuse and wants to stay in school [for example], we ask what the Ministry of Education can do for that child. In the case of an incidence of rape, the National Police’s Criminal Investigation Unit, with support from the Ministry of Health, which provides forensic examination, must register the case with the Ministry of Public Prosecution. For us [at MSSI] the question is: how we can look after the wellbeing of the child and their family?”
This workforce and the clearly defined roles within it are helping these rights defenders to identify and respond to child protection risks early, and to seek formal justice when abuses occur.
“Before the training, when child abuse cases arose, it would be resolved within the suco (village). It would just stop there. But now we understand that acts of child abuse are crimes that must attract a system of justice that extends beyond the village,” says João da Silva Sarmento, the suco support representative in Ossu.
In Timor-Leste, traditional systems of justice are often the first to be sought out by the families of victims once issues are brought to light. Local leaders, such as suco chiefs and elders, gather to determine the action to be taken. But the safety and wellbeing of the child concerned can often be overlooked.
With the Social Welfare Workforce now in place in Ossu, local authorities are working together with families and village leaders, and they better understand the need to formally report cases through the appropriate channels.
“With cases of child abuse, we can still have traditional family mediation within the suco, but there must always be an official process, too,” explains João.
Local authorities are a key link between formal and informal justice mechanisms in Timor-Leste, and their support is an essential element of the child protection safety net. ‘Paraprofessionals’, such as suco chiefs, are closer to the community than formal structures, in terms of both detecting and following up on cases. They are often the ones who visit vulnerable households, talk to caregivers, identify any issues, and bring these to the attention of the relevant authorities. They also make follow ups to ensure cases are handled.
“When cases occur in Ossu, there is coordination between the local authorities, social animators (multifunctional MSSI workers), and the police’s Vulnerable Person’s Unit,” says Doroteia de Jesus Guterres, a Social Animator with MSSI. “For example, if a local authority contacts the police about a case, the police will call me, and we’ll go together. We always have a line of coordination regardless of who is the first to hear about the case.”
From the ground, up
Members of the Social Welfare Workforce also work closely with volunteer facilitators from the Parenting Programme – a partnership between UNICEF and MSSI that aims to strengthen positive parenting techniques and guide caregivers through early childhood development as a way of providing early intervention and prevention.
With their ears to the ground, these volunteers can often be the first to hear about issues that need to be reported. Having one volunteer for each of the 10 sucos in Ossu ensures that the reach of support and protection for children is far and wide.
Alongside these facilitators, one of the first tasks for the Social Welfare Workforce was to carry out a community mapping exercise. In addition to collecting valuable information on child protection risks, it was an opportunity to build trust with the community.
During the exercise, children expressed their gratitude for the programme and asked that other children across Timor-Leste have access to the same support systems.
“They said they feel happy and proud with this programme because now they know that they can feel safe in their community, and they know who they can turn to for support. They feel that the programme is good for them,” says Doroteia. “They also suggested we tell our national team that this programme shouldn’t just be in Ossu, but across all of Timor-Leste so that every child can benefit.”
A stronger core
“It involves supporting workers to prioritise the voice of the child,” says MSSI’s Juliana. “If children are with their families [when abuse is occurring], it’s difficult for them to speak up, so we give them private space to talk and allow them to express their feelings or problems. Sometimes they do this through drawings. It creates a space for children where they can express their feelings and what they’ve gone through.”
As a MSSI child protection officer, Juliana is encouraged by the progress the programme has made.
“I feel optimistic,” she says, “that children can feel safe and happy, and can share their feelings without any hesitation.”
United in their mission and focus, members of the Social Welfare Workforce are making positive progress in protecting children in Viqueque, and ensuring that they develop and thrive in safe, supportive communities.