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Uganda’s growing army of para social workers

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July 2013 by Kate Iorpenda, Senior Advisor on Children and HIV at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance


Internationally there is huge momentum around social service workforce strengthening. It is a key area of investment by the U.S. government through the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and they have supported the formation of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. There seem to be weekly webinars on this issue lamenting the dearth of social workers concerned with the care and protection of vulnerable children and I have participated in many but not until I visited Uganda last week had I seen the true value of this work and its incredible potential in addressing the needs of vulnerable children.

SUNRISE-OVC is training para social workers in a selection of the 80 districts they work in to support government probation and community development officers in communities identified with high levels of child abuse and neglect.

Only 41% of the approved staff positions in the Community Based Services Department (CBSD) in Uganda were filled in 2011. This translated into one social worker to every 6000 children. In response SUNRISE-OVC has trained 1,178 para social workers using the government and UNICEF developed curriculum.

In Mbale, five hours east of Kampala, I visited the sub county office of Bungokho Mutoto and met 11 para social workers trained by the SUNRISE-OVC project who now work directly with the government officers from the district probation and welfare service.

I met Reverend Wilson Makabuli, a pastor in the local church and chair of the sub counties group of para social workers. He presented me with a report of all the activities of the para social workers in the last month.  They are dealing with cases of child abuse that I would struggle to describe to you let alone deal with.  They are mediating in cases of domestic violence, child abandonment, visiting homes of children not attending school and reminding people on a daily basis about their duty to care for children. Reverend Wilson has even visited parents charged with abuse in prison to support their rehabilitation and spent three weeks looking after a baby in hospital who had been abused and left for dead in the forest.

Reverend Wilson Makabuli with a picture of a child he has cared for. © International HIV/AIDS Alliance 2013

They are all volunteers, many already part of village health teams or community development committees, now taking on the care and protection of children in their villages.  I struggle with the lack of payment to these volunteers but see the growing recognition of their role and their own commitment to support their own communities.

“After the training we felt a lot had been invested in us being selected and the training. It was not good to go back and sit and let the efforts go to waste. If we went back and sat the sub county would miss other opportunities in the future so we must be seen to be doing something.”

Ruth is the community development officer for Bungokho Mutoto a government staff worker based at the sub county level. She coordinates the work of the para social workers helping them resolve more complex cases, referring to district for care orders or court cases and at the same time the para social workers are her eyes and ears in every village. They know the families who are critically vulnerable, those houses dealing with violence, conflict and food insecurity and they are there able to respond, often before things reach crisis point.

Trained by SUNRISE-OVC in child protection, child rights, documentation and data collection, they are now asking for more support in counselling, especially with children who they meet in these houses.  These are not professional psychologists and I have to admit a certain level of discomfort thinking about people with such little training dealing with complex and sensitive issues.  But spending time with them and listening to the stories of cases they face, day in day out, I have no doubt that children are incredibly fortunate to have these individuals ready to listen and support them. Their commitment to supporting families and keeping them together was impressive and they understood that this abuse and violence is linked to deep issues of poverty and gender inequality and that true child protection is about recognising and responding to the multiple vulnerabilities in play, not just removing children and taking legal action against parents.

And so it seems right that SUNRISE should be better equipping them for this job, certifying their training, linking them to service organisations and through the rest of the project activities, ensuring they are engaged and contributing to the district planning around child welfare and protection. Their exercise books full of names, cases, actions and home visits are testament to how well they know these families. True community action which is in partnership with government systems and service provision!

As I leave I wonder how the other sub counties and parishes manage without this incredible army of people. Only some of the districts have implemented the training of para social workers based on where levels of child protection violations are the highest. This is social welfare workforce strengthening in action. It has such potential to extend the work of SUNRISE-OVC from government to village level and I hope it will continue to become a more standard part of the response for children.



This blog is written by Kate Iorpenda, the Senior Advisor on Children and HIV at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.  She visited Uganda in July 2013 to provide technical support to colleagues who are implementing the USAID funded SUNRISE-OVC project which works with local government and communities to improve services for children. The programme is being implemented by Alliance Uganda and its partners who were awarded $22.9 million through the five-year project.


germitaslas's picture

The responsibilities depend on the kind of work the person is specialized in. A family social worker can work with broken families, such as those going through divorce, or death of a parent. They can help the parents and children to adjust to the new setup and changes in their lives.