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OP-ED: Safeguarding is more than a buzzword

  • Published at 07:13 pm July 30th, 2020

How can we make sure our rights are not violated?

A recent buzzword in the development sector is “safeguarding.” 

In Bangladesh, we are still trying to understand what it means and what the word is meant to cover. Some organizations have mastered it better than others; the hope is that the rest of the industry will soon follow suit.

Based on our experience at SAJIDA Foundation, a leading non-governmental organization in Bangladesh, we have tried to simplify this concept so that everyone associated with the organization can understand it and use it for their benefit.

The concept of safeguarding came about as a result of research conducted by UNHCR and Save the Children in 2002, titled “Sex for aid in West Africa.” It uncovered stories of rampant sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment of vulnerable beneficiaries by aid workers. Sex was being traded for ordinary things such as soap, oil, medicines, plastic sheeting, and food.

There were allegations against aid workers of around 40 development organizations. Even aid workers themselves were being harassed and abused by other aid workers and superiors in their own organizations.

During interviews conducted in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, beneficiaries revealed that they had not come forward because of fear of being deprived of aid; some admitted that they had filed complaints with the organizations, but those complaints somehow got lost in bureaucratic red tape.

Following these alarming findings, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) formed a consortium to delve into these matters further. Upon discussion with various industry stakeholders, DFID came up with a set of guidelines which would be applicable for all NGOs who received funding from DFID.

Non-compliance with these guidelines had serious consequences; if there was a lack of procedures and policies to address concerns, DFID would be at liberty to reduce or cut funding altogether. This threat made a lot of organizations stand up and take a long, hard look at their existing policies, procedures, and practices, or lack thereof.

Safeguarding can be described as protecting the health, wellbeing, and human rights of adults and vulnerable groups at risk, enabling them to live safely, free from abuse and neglect. It is about working together to prevent the risks and experiences of abuse or neglect.

The rules on safeguarding require organizations to have policies and procedures in place in order to raise awareness amongst its staff and its beneficiaries/members, have a complaint mechanism, and a transparent redressal process to address them.

While these formal definitions and requirements may seem overly complicated at first sight, safeguarding actually attempts to provide structure to address issues that have been around for many years, but have not been effectively addressed, eg sexual harassment, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.

At SAJIDA Foundation, we have tried to demystify the jargon around safeguarding and boil it down to the basics. What do we need and what are we trying to achieve? To us, it is the basic right of every person associated with any organization to be able to work in a safe environment, without fear of being harassed or mistreated.

Should there be any kind of ill treatment, there should be a straightforward complaint mechanism which allows them to voice their concerns to independent investigators who will look into the matter and forward their findings to an independent committee, who in turn will come to a decision on the matter.

Surprisingly, not all development organizations see safeguarding as a basic right of their employees and beneficiaries, and choose not to have any procedures in place to address these violations. Therefore, not many people come forward and a very small number of complaints are officially filed.

We hope the mindset of the people working in organizations will soon change following the initiative by DFID. Organizations will consider the right of every individual associated with it to be protected from any kind of harassment, exploitation, and abuse. The principles of safeguarding also need to be kept in mind when designing programs and activities so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of harm.

It is important for organizations to ensure that every staff, starting from the most junior to the senior-most executive is aware of and is able to understand such policies. Beneficiaries must have the same level of awareness regarding the protection offered to them by the safeguarding guidelines and the obligation an organization has to be accountable should they be harmed.

At SAJIDA Foundation, explaining safeguarding to the masses is easy when you leave the legalese and jargon behind and adopt a three pronged approach -- awareness, complaint, and redressal.

We believe in making people aware of their rights and the obligations of an organization to keep them safe from harm. We believe in letting people know that we are there to listen and we will hold a person accountable. We believe in the rules of natural justice which ensure that a victim/survivor has the right to be heard by a non-partisan third party, and given a fair decision. 

Adopting safeguarding guidelines and procedures should not be an afterthought. It should be at the forefront in order to ensure that the rights of employees and the beneficiaries, the very group for whom we exist, are not harmed.

Sajeda Farisa Kabir is Barrister, Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Solicitor, and Safeguarding and External Relations Consultant, SAJIDA Foundation.