Impact Case Study: Preventing child abuse globally through research-driven parenting programmes

Parents and child holding hands

Since 2011, Professors Gardner, Cluver and Dr Lachman and their teams within the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (DSPI), at the University of Oxford, have led a multi-stakeholder effort to develop the world’s first suite of evidence-based, non-commercialised, open-access parenting programmes: Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH). 

In 2011, researchers within DSPI, with colleagues at the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and the South African Government, identified a major unmet need for evidence-based, free of charge parenting programmes to prevent violence against children in low-resource settings. The research team joined forces with the Universities of Cape Town, Bangor and Stellenbosch to develop and rigorously test programmes for young children and adolescents. 

These programmes are designed to support families living with poverty and stress, which are key risks for violence. The programmes are group-based, manualised and delivered by local community members to support family relationships, provide alternatives to violence and help their plans to protect children inside and outside the home. 

At the same time as they were developing the Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) programmes, a team led by Gardner conducted a series of reviews which provide a clear set of messages to policymakers explaining which parenting programmes, and which of their core components, are effective for which kinds of children, families and contexts, and how they can be transported across countries and settings. This paved the way for continued development and testing of PLH, as well as creating an environment conducive to the adoption of evidence-based parenting programmes in new countries.

The Developing Parenting for Lifelong Health programme for younger children was developed and tested in South Africa over a period of 6 years. The 12 session parenting programme gave significant positive results, such as more positive parenting, alongside significantly less abusive parenting, fewer child behaviour problems and greater use of non-violent discipline strategies one year after the programme.

A similar programme for teenagers was also developed and tested in South Africa with nearly 1500 families taking part over a five year period. The trial showed significant positive results eight months after including lower physical and emotional abuse, improved parental supervision, reduced caregiver alcohol use and significantly reduced adolescent alcohol use. It showed that depression and stress of caregivers was lower and food security and household savings were improved. 

Following the success of the programmes in South Africa, trials took place in the Philippines, Thailand and South Sudan which demonstrated significant reductions in physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and maltreatment.

‘Before Parenting for Lifelong Health there was no affordable way for us to improve parenting amongst vulnerable households. Now we can have a life-changing impact on thousands of adolescents and caregivers’. 
Deputy Director-General, South African National Department of Social Development.

 

 ‘Gardner and colleagues’ reviews have been highly influential in helping to forge parenting policy globally, especially their systematic reviews showing that parenting interventions can be effective in low- and- middle income countries’ 
Head of Violence Prevention at the World Health Organisation

 

Impact

The programmes are endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, USAID, CDC and Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. Over 3,000 local staff have been trained as parenting supporters, with programmes translated into 22 languages. This research, hand-in-hand with the team’s evidence synthesis work, has had major impacts on the global policies of both the WHO and UN, and is embedded in national policy and scale-up of parenting programmes in six countries. 

PLH has been adapted to reach highly vulnerable groups of children in national contexts, for example versions have been used with children working in Tanzanian mines, young homeless mothers in Kenya, and for reintegration of children from orphanages into family care in Uganda and Kenya.

In Thailand, the Ministry of Public Health is scaling the programme to seven provinces and 15,000+ families by 2022 and has embedded it in the public health system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put families globally under extreme stress, through lockdowns, school closures and poverty. Rates of child abuse have risen sharply. In response, a rapid coalition was formed between the team and WHO, UNICEF, the Global Partnership to End Violence, USAID, UNODC and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Through this collaboration the PLH programme elements were converted into accessible tip sheets, radio scripts and social media formats, which were translated by volunteers into 114 languages.

PLH continues to inform policymaking and scale-up of parenting programmes globally.