LONDON — Efforts to overhaul the aid sectors’ safeguarding practices need to be more focused on victims and less on perpetrators, a child safeguarding expert has warned.
Under current practices, the vast majority of victims who have suffered abuse at the hands of aid workers don’t report because they think “they have very little to gain from speaking out,” according to Corinna Csáky, former global adviser on child protection at Save the Children, giving evidence before the United Kingdom’s parliamentary International Development Committee in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The U.K. Department for International Development will provide its delivery partners with clearer guidelines for reporting safeguarding issues by October, officials said this month, after concerns were raised that previous guidance could put victims at risk.
Csáky addressed politicians as part of a special inquiry launched by IDC into the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector, in the wake of revelations earlier this year about abuse and misconduct carried out by staff at Oxfam, Save the Children, and other organizations.
The consultant wrote the now-famous report, “No One To Turn To,” published in 2008, which revealed that hundreds of marginalized children in Haiti, South Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire were routinely sexually exploited by staff from at least 23 local and international aid organizations in exchange for humanitarian aid and services.
Csáky explained that the majority of the 341 victims she interviewed as part of her research said they did not consider reporting their abuse because “speaking out carries huge risks and very little gain.” Victims said they doubted that reporting would result in any action being taken by either aid organizations or local authorities, nor did they expect to receive any legal, psychosocial or financial support, describing a “situation of almost total impunity,” Csáky said.
Victims also said they were afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals; stigma; that aid supplies would be removed; and in some cases being forced to marry the alleged perpetrator, she said. For many children, especially those living in conflict or post-conflict countries, sexual abuse has become an “inevitable part of life and [so they] do not see the need to report it.”
“Taking a victim-centered approach is critical … Without this, you’re designing a system in a vacuum, which essentially nobody will use.”— Corinna Csáky, child safeguarding expert
Addressing these issues requires putting more emphasis on the victims themselves, instead of focusing on the perpetrators, Csáky said. In practical terms, this means giving children in humanitarian settings training about their rights and the confidence to speak out; creating child-friendly spaces for reporting and talking to each other; offering medical, psychosocial, legal and financial support to victims; and regular feedback to communities about what actions are being taken to investigate and prosecute claims of abuse, she said.
“The victims and survivors must be aware of their rights and [be] willing to report … Without this, the safeguarding system is essentially flawed. So taking a victim-centered approach is critical … Without this, you’re designing a system in a vacuum, which essentially nobody will use,” Csáky said.
“The children and their communities were very clear that they need to know about their rights and to value those rights in order to speak out when they are violated. This goes hand-in-hand with tackling this abuse by the aid sector,” she added.
The child safeguarding expert, who now works as an independent consultant, said many of the “solutions” needed to create more effective safeguarding systems have been around since the 2000s, but that implementation has trailed behind.
“There have been over two decades of solutions … The child protection sector has moved forward in leaps and bounds,” she said, but “where it falls down is implementation.”
Furthermore, while her report received a great deal of political attention at the time of its release in 2008 — including from the United Nations which held a high-level meeting on the issue, and from NGOs, who created the Keeping Children Safe coalition — she said the resolutions often did not translate into practice, in part due to a lack of funding and political commitment.
“There was a flurry of activity … [and] there definitely has been some investment, but it remained very much at the technical guidance level,” she said.
Her point was echoed by Kevin Watkins, chief executive officer of Save the Children, who also gave evidence to the committee and said that donors were often unwilling to pay for safeguarding.
“We [NGOs] have been operating in a market where [safeguarding] hasn’t been valued or priced in the right way by the donors,” he said.
Save the Children UK has been mired in controversy since reports surfaced that its former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, and head of policy, Brendan Cox, were alleged to have sexually harassed a number of female colleagues. Watkins and the NGO’s then chairman, Sir Alan Parker, have been questioned separately about this by IDC as part of the inquiry.
However, Csáky said it was important not to “conflate” the cases of misconduct at Save the Children UK’s headquarters with its approach to protecting children in humanitarian settings, on which it is “light years ahead of other NGOs,” she said.
Speaking to Devex after the IDC session, Csáky added: “It’s a shame that the attention on problems in headquarters is detracting attention from what Save The Children … invests on this on the ground.”
Others providing evidence to the IDC inquiry have also emphasized the need to distinguish between workplace sexual harassment and the exploitation of aid beneficiaries.
During an IDC hearing in May, chair of the board for Bond, Caroline Nursey said “they are actually two related but different sets of issue,” and though neither is acceptable, they may require different responses.