Lessons learned on community-led protection in Pakistan

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Safeguarding and Child Protection Technical Advisor, ACTED

Community members can be indirectly or directly involved in discrimination and exclusion, due to existing power dynamics and struggles of different people within a community. This is why it is so important to build the capacity and understanding of power, privilege, vulnerability, and inclusion within communities.

From 2021 to 2023, ACTED, together with ABES and Right to Play, implemented the Closing the Gap project in areas of KP and Sindh in Pakistan. The project focused on women and young girls who face several cultural barriers to accessing education. For many, even their movement in public spaces is restricted.

In this context, community-led protection and ownership of the project learning spaces was integral to its effectiveness. ACTED established School Management Committees (SMCs) for each location which consisted of local teachers, parents, influential community members, and, in some areas, elders and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) members.

From the outset, project team members ensured coordination with SMCs who were sensitized on safeguarding, child protection, and Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) standards. SMC members were regularly oriented on ACTED’s policies and reporting mechanisms by the Complaint Response Mechanism (CRM) teams and safeguarding focal points. They also had access to CRM boxes placed in the learning centers, as many centers were established in the houses of community members. Specialized sessions were also delivered with the support of local CSO members in local languages covering child protection, gender-based violence, child marriages, and other forms of abuse.

What did we learn?

Implementers must engage communities and establish SMCs from the start. Protection-related activities should be designed with their input.
Needs assessments must be participatory and engage community members of different ages, genders, minorities, ethnicities, and income backgrounds. This works especially well in remote communities where local norms and cultures are different and must be respected. To ensure that the communities are on board with the project objectives, they must be included and heard before on-ground activities begin. SMCs must also be diverse and include people from different backgrounds and structures in the community.

Implementers should carry out child protection sensitization activities using an approach that makes individuals and communities feel safe and dignified.
Emphasizing safeguarding or protection as a donor-driven agenda is ineffective. Instead, there should be a focus on the values of the community and their rights to safety and dignity. Community members should feel that the intervention serves their children’s best interests and will lead to healthier lives. ACTED’s team focused on the principle of confidentiality and took a survivor-centered approach.

SMC members were encouraged to deliver sessions with the support of the team, allowing the team members to learn from their narratives and perspectives. They highlighted the impact of domestic violence on children’s mental and physical development and emphasized how girls’ education can also help the wider family (for example, that the ability to read the expiry date on medicine is a life-saving skill!).

“We feel confident in resolving conflicts related to protection and safeguarding issues in our community. Through our continuous learning, meetings sessions, and engagement with ACTED, we have developed the necessary knowledge and skills to address such conflicts effectively.”
Parent (female), Jacobabad

Implementers should take a comprehensive and sustainable approach by including community members in prevention, response, and mitigation initiatives.
Without revealing any confidential information and adhering to the Do No Harm principle, ACTED successfully coordinated with SMCs to protect learners from any harm. SMCs held conversations around Personal Safety, Good Touch, and Bad Touch. Safeguarding Teams also worked with SMCs on actions such as supporting girls’ safe travel to school, tackling discriminatory and predatory behaviors, and discouraging child marriages.

Teams also received feedback from the community who deemed safeguarding and child protection as the most important aspect of this project as it led to behavioral change in the broader community, including men and women, for the empowerment of young girls.

Implementers should produce and share materials in local languages to ensure the messages are easily understood by communities.
Community narratives and languages were an important consideration when developing radio messages, posters, and other IEC materials. Even policy memos were circulated in local languages. ACTED received requests from SMC members for more informational videos via WhatsApp and other platforms. CSOs engaged in other projects reproduced the child-friendly posters developed by ACTED.

Implementers should develop contextualized risk assessments and mitigation plans, with consistent monitoring and evaluation.
It is important to engage communities in understanding the existing protection risks. Any mitigation plans created in isolation from the community tend to fail. Emerging risks or causes of concern should be addressed with the support of community members. The project team regularly developed memos and updated SOPs to ensure communities felt safe and included on their terms, without compromising on the Code of Conduct and safeguarding policies.

“One thing here has deeply affected us – the fact that male staff was restricted from entering the center after we raised the issue. It meant that no male staff were permitted without an SMC member. We are happy that this has ensured better protection for our female children.”
Community elder (male), Jacobabad

Implementers should ensure that SMC and community members are provided with opportunities to engage with local and national government stakeholders.
This was challenging but essential. It is important to note that some community members reported not trusting local government laws and units for their protection-related concerns, and therefore relied on Jirga, the traditional tribal court, to resolve issues – including those related to gender-based violence and child protection. The only way to penetrate this system was to engage with community members who participated in this alternate dispute resolution system (for example, certain elders were included in SMCs) and simultaneously work on building rapport with community members with local government units. ACTED made its best efforts to establish a connection between the SMCs and government units, but this was difficult to achieve in the timeframe (especially when COVID-19 and the floods in 2022 weakened community and state structures). It requires more time and investment.

Implementers should allocate funds and develop the capacity of SMCs and other community structures to strengthen safeguarding and community-based protection mechanisms.
When working with projects where funds are limited, organizations must invest in community structures (such as local NGO networks, foundations, community leaders, and local child protection units) that have existed for a while and have a better outreach. Without empowering these structures, these mechanisms will not continue once the intervention has ended. ACTED has been able to sustain selected learning spaces in Sindh with the support of the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF). SMCs have already been established and are operational for all the centers with the aim that the safeguarding and child protection model will be further replicated for the Foundation’s overall portfolio – a network of 2,100 schools across Sindh making it one of the largest education Foundations in Pakistan!)

Final thoughts

During this project, I realized these communities deserve MORE recognition for their role in protection, whether as SMCs, families, or simply as neighbors. I hope one day we can fully engage and empower them at local, national, and international levels. We must understand that communities and affected populations are the most appropriate sources to seek out knowledge and understanding related to their context.

Communities are better suited to share an understanding of the protection risks and needs of their area. They are also aware of the challenges and gaps that exist in their capacity and resources. It is a fact that they are the ones who will be present (with or without any project funding!) making or breaking power structures, imparting their values, prescribing roles, and responsibilities while holding each other accountable for behaviors – and eventually creating long-lasting impact on the lives of children and vulnerable groups. Thus, community involvement and engagements whether through SMCs or any other community-led groups is necessary to establish and sustain a robust safeguarding and child protection mechanism.

Originally Published Here

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