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.

Social workers. We have the power, but what stops us from taking action?

Anna Martine Jarlvang Karsrud is currently interning with the Department of Social Work in Arusha, and reflects here on the insights that are emerging for her. 

As a social work student from Norway, I have been given lectures about the power of being a social worker. Tutors stressed the matter on our first days of studies and at the time, I don’t think I fully realized the meaning and the scope of it. Today, I am absolutely positive that social work is even more powerful than I realize.

My experience of social work is from the West; where I have been taught that social workers have the ability and the knowledge to empower people to be able to help themselves. They are advocates, and a voice for those without voices. A social worker has the power to do, and the power not to do. It is a great power, but also a great responsibility. A Danish author and philosopher once said that when helping another person we carry a part of that person’s life in our hands.

Being here, in Tanzania, has made me realize that I have to moderate some of my expectations about the role of a social worker. The basic principles of a social worker are the same the world over. But, when it comes to implementation the context matters. 

Tanzania is a collectively oriented society, where people tend to depend on family and the community more than on the government when they face tough times. My understanding from meeting social workers, CCR and clients is that the government is experienced as a remote power, and the systems put in place have shortcomings that do not inspire confidence in citizens.

Nevertheless, social workers are limited by things that are different from what I am used to. By “taking action” I mean doing what you can, and what you are trained to do, to help the client. It might be to report a case, write a letter, make an appointment with a doctor, or investigate an issue more closely. When this kind of action is absent, I am wondering; what prevents us from acting?

I think there might be several reasons for not acting. One possibility is the fear of consequences that might follow. Fear that trouble might come back at you. The fear of the things you can’t control.

I also think one reason might be the lack of knowledge. If one doesn’t have knowledge about a subject, of course it gets more difficult to act. What is the right thing to do? What is my mandate? What happens if I step into something that is none of my business?

I wonder if these questions might prevent the social workers from taking action.

A third reason for not acting might be the fact that there are limited resources. We have heard several situations in which social workers have to use their own money when they go to the field, or if someone comes and asks for help, they have to give their own money.

That leads me to another reason for not taking action – motivation.

I assume that when people have limited professional knowledge or access to resources, the motivation might lessen. In a world without it, the motivation might be to always do your best to help others. Is it possible having this kind of motivation even if there are several limitations? I can see the fact that these sorts of limitations might damage your motivation to help. Like elsewhere in the world, the laws and policies protecting vulnerable populations (women, children, persons living with disabilities and in this case the elderly) place great responsibility on the shoulders of the social welfare department, and yet the department of social welfare is chronically under-resourced and under-staffed, and social workers undervalued. Every time you try to do the right thing, you are being told that there are no time, no money, or no point. After a while, you no longer have the strength to ask.

I get it that this lack of motivation, lack of resources, lack of knowledge or feeling of fear might prevent a social worker from acting. I think it happens all over the world, not only here in Tanzania. But are we not, despite this fear and despite the limitations, supposed to help? We, the social workers, might be the only voice of an abused child, an old and weak lady, or a mother left alone with four kids.

Is it then better to have the voice of a social worker, even if it is weak, than not having a voice at all? I think that is the greatest power of being a social worker.