Children listening to radio
Michael Duff, Child to Child

Facilitating meaningful child participation in safeguarding

2018 was our sector’s year of re-evaluating what we do and how we do it. We came away with the golden rule reinforced that in the pursuit of “doing good,” we must take great care to ensure that we do no harm through our work, our presence and our people.

As early pioneers of children’s participation, Child to Child looked at the new DFID guidance on safeguarding [PDF] with a view to what it would really mean for the young people that we serve.

For us, real progress would go beyond policies on paper. It would mean working with the communities we serve to give them real ownership of protective mechanisms.

It would also mean changing the culture of silence and impunity that allows abuse to happen, by building a culture in which children’s voices are both listened to and acted upon.

A culture of listening

Safeguarding is a cross-cutting consideration. Protection challenges can arise no matter what the nature of a project. We were implementing an early education project in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, when Ebola broke out and protection systems collapsed. According to Marie Stopes, sexual and gender-based violence rose by a horrifying 40% in the first year. This was what could be gleaned from reporting in the circumstances – actual numbers could be much higher.

One of the ways we responded to the crisis was to adapt our early education project into a radio for education project called Pikin to Pikin Tok, which was a finalist for the 2017 Bond Innovation Award.

In partnership with local organisation Pikin to Pikin Movement, “Young Journalists” were trained to report on important issues in their communities. The programme series, “Under the Mango Tree”, taught young people about their rights, how to stay safe, and specific risks like the dangers of teenage pregnancy.

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After each broadcast, children came together to discuss the topics from the programme and find ways to deal with the issues they were facing. Sometimes, strategies could be simple such as when one girl shared “when your mother asks you to sell on the street, don’t go inside building(s) or out of sight. When a man asks you to come inside, do not go.”

When children came forward to discuss protection issues that were otherwise taboo in their communities, they broke the culture of silence. They raised questions about teenage pregnancy that were recorded and taken to officials and technical experts from the Ministry for Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, whose answers were then broadcast to hundreds of young listeners.

This was a unique way of fostering a spirit of democracy as well as public accountability, and a powerful illustration of what can happen when the key elements of children’s participation are provided: voice, space, influence and an audience.

Meaningful participation in safeguarding

To understand how children’s participation in safeguarding can be meaningful, our chair, Gerison Lansdown, has been involved in developing a conceptual framework for measuring outcomes for adolescent participation. The following four outcomes are what adults need to aspire to achieve for children, as applied to safeguarding and protection:

  • Sense of self-worth – Children need to feel validated in expressing views. That is when they will be much more likely to speak up and report incidents of harassment or abuse.
  • Being taken seriously – If children feel like they may not be believed or may in fact be blamed for what they say, the perpetrators of abuse will remain insulated by a culture of impunity.
  • Making decisions – If girls and boys feel empowered to take responsibility for themselves and take decisions for themselves, they will be better able to protect themselves from unacceptable behavior.
  • Public/civic engagement – If there are mechanisms to engage with the public domain, that is one step towards addressing issues that may be taboo. Having and knowing about places to report abuse and violence would be the practical dimension of engagement.

Shifting the power

Of course, we cannot place all responsibility for protection on the shoulders of children and communities and need to build systems to ensure safeguarding. As we develop our due diligence, we also do need to think about how to continue working closely with local, grassroots organisations, and how to give communities real ownership of protective mechanisms.

As development organisations investing in human dignity our work should be about shifting balances of power. Facilitating meaningful child participation requires a shift in perceptions of how children are able to contribute and how they can handle power. If provided with safe spaces in which their words are listened to and acted upon, young people can play an important role in challenging the culture of silence – and in safeguarding their communities.

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