What Questions Does Zanzibar’s Child Protection System Raise for Practitioners in Africa?

Reflections on World Future Council Conference on Child Rights

I was recently privileged to facilitate a celebration and learning meeting hosted by the World Future Councilcongratulating Zanzibar on its Children’s Act and learning from the experience of 15 other countries about their experience developing child protection systems.

These are my reflections and do not reflect those of World Future Council 🙂

In a country where 60% of respondents reported that violence against children is common in their communities, the Zanzibar Children’s Act is an important statement of the Government’s intent to realize children’s rights. The Act is also notable for the participatory process used to develop it; and for the way in which people and institutions are starting to live the law.

The participation of children – via a peer to peer process – where they articulated what they wanted from the Children’s Act was critical. This is because legislation for children should not only be technical; but should catalyze a national conversation about the value we place on childhood.

The Children’s Act is only a start in domesticating the commitments made by the Tanzanian government when it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Across Africa, the 1990’s were the decade of persuading people that children have rights. The 2000’s involved countries enacting children’s rights in national laws; as characterized by the Zanzibar Children’s Act which was enacted in 2011. We are now in a period where the focus is on creating the conditions where children can claim their rights.

Political will, and the involvement of children and men, have been an atypical approach used in Zanzibar and is fundamental in the success so far in implementing Zanzibar’s Children Act.

Across the African Continent, children represent almost 50% of the population. But, this does not translate into them becoming a priority in national planning and resourcing decisions.

Two areas are in critical need of attention and deeper understanding:


Children cannot claim their other rights if they cannot access justice. However, accessing justice does not only mean accessing formal justice mechanisms. The principles of justice should be enacted by families, communities and government. The best interests of the child is foundational to children’s ability to access their rights; but “their best interest” is often a subjective judgement determined by faith, custom, or personal bias.


And to strengthen the toolbox of practitioners who come into contact with children so that they make decisions that are in children’s best interests and that respect their “evolving capacities” to make their own decisions. Equipping families to parent positively and peacefully is another area which warrants attention, given the extent to which families live with chronic stress and grapple with the pressures that modernity brings.


Many countries adhere to a multi-sectoral approach to child protection, with plans to decentralize service provision to the lowest levels of government.

Governments may claim ownership over child protection provision; but currently few African governments are paying for the services, nor do they do the bulk of the work in delivering frontline services. In Zanzibar the child protection services are largely financed by donor partners and many social workers are active in volunteering their time to support children to support the efforts of the child protection unit. Ghana is an interesting case study as it aims to finance the children’s policy in the most efficient way by moving services away from a state-centric approach; and to rely more on families, chiefs, and informal community mechanisms.

The great question facing child protection provision throughout the African continent will be how will we keep up with demand? Once a consensus is built that violence is unacceptable, people start reporting abuse; and engaging with the system. This costs money. The Zanzibar national plan of action will cost $4m annually over the next four years. Child protection services in the context of Africa require an investment in the social welfare workforce; largely because the Law emphasizes the role of social workers; and that profession has never been fully invested in or resourced.

Given the limited political clout that Ministries of Children and Women have; the competing (albeit supposedly aligned) interests of ministries of Health and Education; and the complexities of investing in child protection across the board; it may make more sense for governments to:

  • Address the underlying drivers of violence by strengthening people’s livelihood options; and thereby reducing the chronic stress facing families.
  • Strengthen schools as places of safety for children; especially given schools’ role as a protection against violence.
  • Link child protection services (particularly those that involve case management) to local processes of government reform; enhancing local authorities’ ability to contract out specialized services; and to take a more nuanced and contextually informed approach to implementing the commitments in the Children’s Act.