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David’s Field Blog: Child Welfare Directors in China

Longchuan, China: There really can be no greater honour than to be welcomed into this humble home.  As the sun sets over the rice and sugar-cane fields we make our way into the courtyard of this house and stools are brought out for us to sit on. We have been brought here by Ban Xiao Lian, one of the community-based “social workers” we have been supporting, to learn more about her work.  While the Chinese government has passed some good laws for social protection, many people are unaware of them. Ban Xiao Lian makes sure that the most vulnerable people – the poorest ethnic minorities here in China’s south-west, a few kilometres from the Burmese border – receive the benefits they are due. 

An elderly grandfather welcomes us and we are offered sticky rice the community made for the occasion. Grandfather cares for two grandchildren. After their father died their mother left the village. His granddaughter, a girl of eleven, worked cutting bamboo – she made 5 yuan for 100 kilos of bamboo and the most she ever made in a day was 20 yuan – about $3. But the Child Welfare Director – this is how the community social workers like Ban are known – realized that they would qualify for the Chinese government’s family allowance. Then she helped make sure they got it and now the granddaughter doesn’t have to work any more – she is going to school.  “Because of Ban’s help our life has changed,” Grandfather said. “Things are still hard, but now they are manageable.  My granddaughter is doing well in school, too.”

Opening excercises in a school where we have been helping with teacher training and providing materials.

While the work UNICEF does for children here in this poor western corner of China may look different than it does in Africa, the basic premise is the same. We support children by helping local authorities take their responsibilities for the most vulnerable and hardest to reach children. Our support of the cadre of Child Welfare Directors is a pilot project. We are measuring the impact it has on children’s access to services and then, assuming it will make a difference, we will advocate with government to scale this practice up. So far it looks good; the Child Welfare Directors are like Community Health Workers (in fact, it is not unusual to find that they do both jobs) whose help provides children with services that will make a difference.

“In Chinese culture,” said Ban, “if you have a powerful family you can go anywhere. But orphans have no one, so I try to be the closest thing they have to a family who can make the right connections for them.”

But sometimes it is not enough. In another courtyard of another home we met another Child Welfare Director, a young man in his early twenties who also works on his family farm. He introduces us to a young woman, seventeen years old, who lost her parents to AIDS and is HIV positive herself.  Although she had passed the requisite exams, because she is positive Chinese regulations forbid her to become a nurse – and that was her dream. She has been depressed, and can’t get up the energy to decide what to do next.

Craig McClure, the Canadian who is UNICEF’s Chief of HIV/AIDS, leans towards her.

“But are you taking your medicine?’

She nods.

“You must keep taking it.  Every day.  You are healthy and well and you can live a long and healthy life if you continue to take the medicine.”

But she’s worried she’ll never be able to get a job, and every day she asks herself “Why did I get the virus? Why me?”

Craig continues to give her gentle encouragement, and you can see her draw strength from his words. There is no answer for her questions. There is no guarantee for her future. But there is also no doubt that without the help of the Child Welfare Directors – such a wonderfully official name for these part-time community workers whose job is to help the poorest people in their village – this young woman and the many other children and families we met today, would not be going to school; would not be taking their medicine; would not have a chance in life at all.

It may not seem like much, but really, it is a lot – by connecting these children to the services offered by the Chinese government, these poorest children in China are getting a chance at life.  And for the young girl today, as we left her home the local official who was traveling with us and who had listened to her conversation with Craig, said to the Child Welfare Director “send me her information. I’ll see if we can do anything for her.”

Just like Ban said – orphans may not have a powerful family to help them like most people in China, but I think the combination of UNICEF and these village Child Welfare Directors may be the next best thing.

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