One need not look any further than the many abuses perpetrated by venerable and trusted institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, Hollywood, and Oxfam to conclude that no institution, however altruistic, is immune from those who wish to abuse power. It’s now been two years since the Oxfam-Haiti scandal broke and, last summer, the Charity Commission reported that Oxfam’s inadequate response to allegations of sexual abuse in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake signified a sectorwide culture of misappropriation of power and abuse.
Initial responses were framed in relation to gender, and the Haitian victims were described in the mainstream press as “young prostitutes,” which implies that they were willing participants exercising agency and choice.
However, the accusations that triggered the safeguarding crisis actually related to alleged child sexual abuse. Some of the children in question were far below the age of consent — as young as 12 or 13. Discussing the scandal in any other terms overlooks the additional vulnerabilities faced first by children, and then by children who are impoverished, marginalized, disempowered, and grappling with a humanitarian crisis.
By framing the narrative and response almost entirely in terms of gender, we have overlooked how age — much like ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability — exacerbates vulnerabilities to abuse and exploitation.
Why are children overlooked?
Children are not a minority group. In fact, in regions and communities where the international development sector operates, children often comprise a majority. Yet they continue to be especially vulnerable to power imbalances. Is this because, in most cultures, it is easy to overlook or disregard what children are telling us? Silencing children in this way creates a breeding ground for impunity to flourish.
Our sector should be at the forefront of challenging injustice and inequities. To most effectively safeguard children, and especially the most vulnerable among them — those deprived of liberty, in institutional care, in conflict and humanitarian settings, and in forced migration situations — what can we do?
In December of last year, Bond, the membership organization representing the sector in England and Wales, hosted its third Safeguarding for Development Conference to review progress and challenges since the scandal first broke. A key takeaway was that, as a sector, we must understand our own power and privilege. It matters — power imbalances exacerbate or entrench vulnerabilities, increasing the likelihood of harm. We must call out the power dynamics that exist within our communities, organizations, and programs.
Creating a safe space
Children are primary stakeholders in our programs and organizations, not just beneficiaries or passive recipients. We urgently need to recognize the role that children can and should play in their own protection, in line with their evolving capacities. We must be accountable to them, engaging them systematically and ethically in all that we do. And we must dedicate time and resources to creating safe spaces, working in collaboration with them, taking into account their lived experience and contextual expertise, and recognizing and responding to them as a diverse constituency. Then, we must use this input to ensure that we run safer organizations and design safer programs.
We can only achieve this if we take the time to listen and respond to what children tell us. In order to do this more reliably, we must ensure that they understand what constitutes harm and abuse, have safe and inclusive spaces to share what is happening to them, and have access to child-friendly reporting mechanisms that they trust.
Creating safe spaces is essential for effective safeguarding in any context. For example, protective accompaniment informs key stakeholders along a given migration journey about the risks that young, unaccompanied migrant children might face. They are then able to intervene and help those children to migrate more safely. In Greece and Romania, the EU’s Keeping Children Safe in Sports project is collaborating with staff, children, and youths to develop an e-learning course and best-practice guide, incentivizing 40 sports clubs and summer camps to meet safeguarding standards through the awarding of a “child-safe environment” quality assurance certificate designed by children themselves.
We must train professionals to engage children using child-friendly and age-appropriate methods. And we must challenge predominant social norms that suggest children do not always tell the truth or cannot be relied upon to fully understand what is happening to them.
Simply, we must take what children say seriously and respond proportionately when allegations are made. They are the experts on their own lives.
Children’s meaningful participation must stop being a “nice-to-have” extra and instead fundamentally inform the way that we work. It should be supported by legal and regulatory frameworks, with appropriate resource levels. But we must move beyond simply managing risk. Effective child safeguarding requires durable child protection systems and robust protective environments. These systems should recognize and harness the role that children can play in their own protection while also supporting and strengthening those informal elements of the system — parents and caregivers, community members, teachers, and peers — best placed to prevent harm and keep children safe.
Only by involving children as key stakeholders, and strengthening the protective environment in which they live, can we build on their strengths and thus reduce their vulnerabilities, working with them to mitigate risks. Should harm arise, we must ensure effective and proportionate responses by actors properly trained to listen and respond to children; there must be no impunity.
The concept of listening to children and taking them seriously may seem like a seismic culture shift, but it’s a road we have walked before in our ongoing journey toward women’s emancipation. It’s really not so long ago that the concept of women exercising agency, voice, and choice was dismissed — something we still routinely do to children today.