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Barefoot Social Workers helping take violence out of communities


By Sharron Lovell


Li Zhengchuan, child welfare director at Guangpa Village in Yunnan Province, climbs a tree with a boy from the village. ©UNICEF/China/2016/Xia Yong
Li Zhengchuan, child welfare director at Guangpa Village in Yunnan Province, climbs a tree with a boy from the village.

On the surface Guangpa looks idyllic. The small rambling village in Longchuan County, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, is encompassed by lush greenery and sugarcane fields. The occasional gold roofed pagoda dots the hilly landscape, shimmering in the sunlight. Inside the village, the breeze is filled with the sound of the local lilting Dai and Jingpo dialects and the chatter of its 600 plus children on their way to and from school.

A stone‘s throw from the Golden Triangle


But cracks in the pastoral façade appear as we follow the footsteps of the local Barefoot Social Worker, Li Zhengchuan, on his daily routine. We pass by a once grand, now dilapidated two-story, stone home. From the outside, through dark, dusty and cracked windows it appears completely abandoned. The house however is still occupied, inside an elderly grandmother takes care of her small grandson while the child's father, her son, is in a drug rehabilitation centre along with his brother. Li Zhengchuan explains the household was previously one of the wealthiest in Guangpa, but years ago the two sons frittered away the families money on drugs.

The village is situated in a minority area in the mountains close to the Myanmar border, not far from the Golden Triangle, a region infamous for its drug trade. Zhengchuan explains that these days, fewer youth are affected by the drug scourge that was rampant a decade ago. He recalls at that time many parents became overwhelmed by their use of heroin resulting in their poverty, ill health and even demise. Some like the two sons remain addicted meaning that children are placed in the care of grandparents or guardians.

Reaching out to children in need

When the Department of Social Welfare (within the Ministry of Civil Affairs) and UNICEF looked for some of the country's neediest villages as pilot sites for their Barefoot Social Worker programme, Guangpa was an obvious choice.

A Barefoot Social Worker is a non-professional social worker selected by a community to provide child protection and welfare services in China. Each person is trained in essential social work skills, including how to conduct child vulnerability and well-being assessments, monitor family situations. They also spend a great deal of time informing communities on all dimensions of child well-being.

Poverty underscores many of the day-to-day problems that Zhengchuan deals with. Like all Barefoot Social Workers in the programme, which the Government has utilised to fill the void where its social welfare system has difficulty reaching, Zhengchuan helps link vulnerable children and their families with social welfare and protection services including financial aid and health care.

The scope of roles that Barefoot Social Workers perform are sometimes less tangible and include invaluable prevention work, from encouraging potential teenage school drop-outs to stay in school to giving marital advice to HIV-affected couples. In Guangpa, Zhengchuan has been working hard on preventing corporal punishment of children.

Reducing family violence

Since beginning with the programme he's seen a reduction in violence within families, especially towards children, which is not something he expected when he took on the job in 2012.

A baseline survey, conducted among 4,462 families in the 120 project villages in 2010, shows 45 per cent of children had been beaten or scolded by their parents.

Along with the village school teachers, Zhengchuan has gone to great lengths to increase awareness among households on the negative impacts of family violence, including against children. He has also organised a small community watch group to monitor the issue.

Zhengchuan grew up in Guangpa and even before joining the Barefoot Social Worker programme understood family violence as an urgent issue. Slowly and patiently he has been educating caregivers on how damaging and unacceptable the violence is. He believes the outreach is working.

“Children are now aware that it's not right for parents to beat them. Teachers educate children in school, and I convince parents at home. I believe from my experience that domestic violence has dropped in our village,” he says.

Ruiying, a female Barefoot Social Worker in the neighbouring county recounts a similar experience in her village. She also believes that her community has become more tight-knit through her interventions.

“Before, people used to mind their own business; if a child was orphaned or whatever, people didn't pay attention,” she says. “Now the community is closer, and they know to keep an eye out for each other—especially for the children.”

Progress like this is no easy feat and it's just one of the ‘slow burn' side effects of Barefoot Social Workers. Zhengchuan hardly makes it down a single lane in the village without someone stopping him for advice. In the blazing afternoon sun on a road separating the village from it's verdant farmland, an elderly man with a toddler strapped to his back and a 5-year-old in tow calls out to Zhengchuan. The man's daughter-in-law has run away.

“This is both a common and very sensitive issue. Young children really suffer when their mother leaves,” he sighs.

Zhengchuan surmises that, potentially at least, domestic abuse may be involved. He's concerned for the small children, partly because the elderly man is too frail to care for them, but he also worries that their father may vent his anger in the home.

Zhengchuan speaks with the elderly grandfather for a while and fixes a time to visit them at home to better understand the situation. As we watch the old man slowly walk away, the 5-year-old turns and looks back at us beseechingly. Zhengchuan says he will keep a close eye on the family. It feels sad to watch the children head into a possible unknown but comforting to know that Zhengchuan will look out for them.

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