Panpan has had to grow up quickly. Her mother left when she was only a year old, and her father works in a faraway town.

Now just 8 years old, Panpan lives with her grandmother and grandfather in a rural village in Wenxi County, in central China’s Shanxi Province.

While her grandfather is farming his vegetable crops in the field, Panpan is always around to help. Grandpa has a lot of things to worry about. He doesn’t have much education, so he doesn’t know how to teach her, and sometimes the money they earn is not enough for all their expenses.

But life has become a little easier since Mei Hongfang started to visit. A friendly woman who lives in their village, Mei is known as the ‘barefoot social worker’, although her official title is Child Welfare Director. She is part of a growing network of community-based social workers helping to reach children like Panpan in rural China.

Grassroots workforce

The Child Welfare Project was started in 2010 in 120 villages in five provinces to reach children affected by HIV/AIDS. Built on the same concept as the ‘barefoot doctors’, who became famous for bringing health care to rural areas in China, the idea is to reach poor and remote children in a cost-effective and efficient way.

Mei has become a supportive figure to Panpan and her family. “I wash her hair when I see it is too dirty,” she says in a motherly tone. “When the grandfather is busy with the farming and other things, I look after the family needs.”

Child Welfare Directors are selected through a written test and interview. They are not fully trained certified social workers, who are in dire shortage across China, but they constitute a grassroots workforce that fulfills an urgent need for care and welfare for vulnerable children.

Mei makes sure Panpan and her grandparents are registered and can access government subsistence allowances of more than RMB 100 (about US$16) per month. “People in the village usually don’t know these policies and allowances,” Mei says. Welfare directors are trained to monitor use of the monthly subsidy, ensuring that guardians or caregivers spend it as intended.

“The Barefoot Social Workers make sure that children can benefit from child welfare policies and social protection measures they are entitled to,” explains Xu Wenqing, UNICEF China’s HIV and AIDS specialist. “When they identify the needs of children which are not yet covered by the existing policies, they bring them to the attention of the higher authorities.”

Since the launch of the project, Mei, who is paid an honorarium of RMB 800 ($128) per month, has registered eligible local children below 18 and above 2 years of age. The project has also provided equipment for a child friendly space, where children can come together and play.

Over the last 30 years, China has made enormous progress in raising living standards and child well-being. Nonetheless, about 20 million children remain in poverty in rural areas of China, measured by the official poverty standard of $1.80 per person per day. In 2013, 13 million children were unregistered and unable to fully access basic social services.