Barefoot Social Workers Aid and Protect Most Vulnerable Children in China

Barefoot Social Workers Aid and Protect Most Vulnerable Children in China
Three girls cheerful in the streets of their village. © Roman Odintsov, June 3rd, 2020, via Pexels, at


Pauliina Majasaari

Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence


Guanya, a boy in China, was born with a birth defect which affected and decreased his daily functioning. However, with the help and influence of the Barefoot Social Worker Initiative and rural medical assistance scheme, he received surgery and is now a fully healthy boy who can run and play like the other children.

Poverty is very much present in China, with the poorest households living in remote communities, where access to basic services, such as healthcare, is almost nonexistent, negatively affecting the health of children in combination with low rates for birth registration, which also creates barriers to access to services. Furthermore, children living in rural areas compared to children living in urban areas face more difficulties with being underweight, having less access to education, and having lower levels of cognitive development. In line with the need to better the welfare of children living in the rural areas of China, a project was undertaken by the Chinese government to achieve such results. Therefore, in 2010, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs introduced the China Welfare Demonstration Project, which aimed at informing the development of a child welfare system to increase the well-being of children in China. The project covered 120 villages, focusing on children who are most at risk based on factors such as poverty, health, and geographic isolation. As part of the project, "Barefoot Social Workers" were recruited and trained, one for each village, from the said village, to make sure they could speak the language and understand the culture and traditions. The social workers acted as front-line workers, with the families and creating a connection between the families and different agencies which provide services for children and thereby form an effective child welfare service mechanism. The results of the project, already after four years of being launched, were tremendous. Over six thousand children without caregivers have received orphan benefits, over eight thousand children and their families have received basic allowance for living, about 15 thousand children have better access to healthcare services, and nine thousand children received financial aid for formal and vocational education. Further positive results have stemmed from the Barefoot Social Workers Initiative including the decrease of dropout rates from primary school and the increase of school enrollment for disabled children.

As set by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Article 24, every child has the right to the highest attainable standard of health and therefore the state parties should take all appropriate measures to ensure that all children receive necessary healthcare. Additionally, Article 26 of the CRC ensures the right of every child to have access to social security and for the state parties to take all measures necessary to attain that objective. Lastly, in line with Article 28 of the CRC, education should be made available to all children, with special emphasis amongst others, to take measures to reduce dropout rates. The Chinese government has taken it as its responsibility to better the status of children and their rights after having ratified the CRC in 1922. As part of this was the realisation of the certain challenges faced by the families living in rural areas and the effects it has on the well-being of children. Thereby the Chinese government has been taking measures in line with the commitments set within the CRC, to better the access to healthcare, education, and social security schemes of children living in rural areas by implementing the Barefoot Social Worker initiative which aims to close the gap between services offered to children and actually having access to such services.

Even though tens of thousands of children’s well-being and development in rural areas have been secured through the Barefoot Social Workers initiative, still millions of children face barriers to crucial services, as lack of awareness by parents of the available services and lack of understanding of how to access such services as well as geographical limits and financial concerns remain. Therefore, as indicated by international actors such as UNICEF, the Chinese government is asked to keep working on measures to aid the families living in rural areas and thereby ensure that every child living in China has access to the rights as set within the CRC.

Sources and further readings:

  1. ‘A Fair Start For Every Child: How six governments in East Asia and the Pacific solved some of the most stubborn problems facing marginalized children’ (UNICEF, November 2016), 20 <> accessed March 13th 2024.
  2. Shuping Han, ‘Improving healthcare for children in rural China: commentary and WeChat-based self-assessment with tailored feedback’ (2023) 37 The LANCET Regional Health Western Pacific <> accessed March 13th 2024.
  3. G Zheng, M Ma and Y Wang et al, ‘Craftsmanship spirit or professionalism: The impetus of barefoot social workers to complete their tasks identify for protecting disadvantaged children in China’ (2020) 116 Children and Youth Services Review <> accessed March 13th 2024.
  4. Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted 20 November 1989, entered into force 2 September 1990) 1577 UNTS 3 (CRC).
  5. ‘Child Health and Development: Ensuring infants, children and adolescents survive, thrive, and achieve their developmental potential’ (UNICEF) <> accessed March 13th 2024.