Sometimes we feel we are doing things well, our projects benefit the women and girls in our community, and we don’t need a safeguarding policy. This was one of the challenges we faced when developing our safeguarding policies and procedures. Staff felt that the introduction of a safeguarding policy was a criticism of them, or put them under suspicion. Some also thought that it was ‘foreign’ or ‘Western’ and an imposition from foreigners in other countries who didn’t understand their own context. African women have always looked for ways to protect other women and children from harm – as our lives have changed, the way we do this also needs to adapt. 

Explain things in a language your team understands

Whilst ‘safeguarding’ may be a new term to your team or organisation, and even to you, the idea isn’t. Protecting children and vulnerable people from harm is a concept as old as time in Africa – for many of us, it is central to our purpose. We even use lionesses as examples of mothers who show incredible commitment to protecting their children from danger. 

When you start talking to your team about safeguarding, it’s important to help them to understand these ideas in ways that make sense to them. Explain new or unfamiliar words and jargon. However, remember that some of this ‘jargon’ will relate to laws in your own countries, and you will need to use it in your policies and procedures to reflect that. 

Making the invisible visible 

Staff and volunteers could be resistant to new policies and procedures – and especially more work in reporting incidents – when they believed their existing approaches sufficiently protected young women and children. We heard people say, “we’ve been running this project for ten years, and no one has ever come to harm”. 

How did they know that? Often, when we don’t have policies things are not reported because:

  • No one knows how to report an incident, or who to report it to
  • People don’t know the warning signs to look for or recognise risks to the women and girls they serve
  • Risky behaviour or incidents may be blamed on the girls, rather than seen as an assault, e.g. “what did she expect if she went out late at night with that man”
  • We assume that cultural practices (including a family’s own culture) are normal and acceptable 
  • Girls may be ashamed to share what has happened to them, fearing judgement. They may keep things to themselves or simply leave the project.

We know that one aspect of a good safeguarding policy is bringing things into the light. A good safeguarding policy is likely to lead to more reports of abuse because we are more committed to prevention. This isn’t a bad thing but should be seen as positive progress. We know that women and girls face many challenges, and if the girls in our care are not sharing this, we must question why this is, whether they trust us, and if not, why not. 

“We have always done it that way”

Another resistance point was that these ‘foreign ideas’ imposed unneeded change. We cannot rest on our laurels, and we must be committed to the best methods of keeping women and girls safe. We must always be committed to doing things better and more professionally in the way we keep women and girls safe, just as we are in other aspects of our work. 

One person getting harmed is one too many 

Do we truly value each person in our projects? It’s easy to say that our systems work because we aren’t seeing incidents, but are they actively preventing the incident that could happen next week or next year because we aren’t aware of emerging risks? When you consider the amount of work it takes to support a survivor of abuse and rebuild their lives, this is saving time and energy long-term. 

Reflection Questions

  • What is the best way to explain safeguarding to your team, in a way that relates to their own aspirations for the women and girls you work for?
  • What terminology, words or phrases relating to safeguarding do you think you would need to explain to your team?
  • What resistance is there (or do you foresee) to safeguarding within your organisation?

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