Silence is not an Option: Reflections from Dóchas Safeguarding Seminar - January 2019

12 february 2019

Authors: Suzanne Keatinge, Dóchas CEO, and Muireann Kiranne, Dóchas Membership Engagement Manager.

We have lived with so much silence around the issue of sexual exploitation and consent, but we now need a strong vision for change. That was the central message that emerged from the recent Dóchas seminar on safeguarding, held on 18 January in the Dublin Woollen Mills.

Veena O’Sullivan, head of Teafund’s global thematic support team, warned that we would need enough “fuel in the tank for the long haul, as it will take the transformation of mindsets”. Such change will also take courage, strength and humility, she stressed.   

She was one of three speakers at the event, which focused on the challenges and opportunities facing the international development sector on safeguarding and, in particular, how to ensure a survivor-centred approach. Ignacio Packer, the Executive Director of ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies), and Orla McBreen, Director of the Civil Society and Development Education Unit of Irish Aid, also contributed.

Survivor-centred approach

Veena’s extensive experience of listening to survivors of abuse in many poverty-stricken countries around the world, underlined the need for healing. “When taking a survivor-centred approach, we cannot push people towards justice without first addressing healing”, she said. It also demands that we understand the economic burdens and challenges involved, particularly for women and young girls. Sometimes the perpetrators of abuse can be the main breadwinners, she warned, and there are rarely easy solutions.

The importance of creating safe spaces was another key issue raised by contributors, as well as the time and space needed to listen to people’s concerns. It is not as easy as it seems, particularly as many NGOs are navigating multiple cultures and languages as they work in many different countries. However, if we empower survivors, they too can be a powerful force for change.

We know also that good policy-making rarely happens in times of crises and negative media attention, which may be good reason to move slowly. “There is a risk of bureaucracy and ‘rat racing’ within the sector at the moment with so many sets of commitments and initiatives,” said Ignacio Packer. He shared some of the many initiatives started last year, particularly by donors like DFID and the UN. Irish Aid is playing a critical role within the OECD DAC, we heard, and there is certainly pressure on donors to do more.   

“That’s why there is clear agreement around the importance of working collectively on this issue,” Ignacio stressed. There are certainly many initiatives underway, but we now have to “walk the talk,” he urged. Our efforts need to take into account the multi-dimensions of the response, including focusing on both national and local levels. He pointed to three possible areas for change:

  • The framing of the issue across four dimensions - technical, cultural, root causes and political responses

  • Shared partnership between national and local actors as well as communities concerned, to build effective measures and systems 

  • Mitigating the negative impact on survivors, not simply managing the wrongdoing

We also need to reach for existing principles, policies and instruments such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), rather than creating more. “We have to avoid duplication of effort”, he stressed. It is hard to disagree.

Dóchas participants were willing to share some of their experiences, including the perceived lack of trust that still exists between staff and management in terms of making the necessary changes, and fast enough. It was stressed that it has been difficult for both managers and staff on so many levels, particularly at country level. However, local partners have welcomed the increased focus on training, as well as being given the space to have difficult conversations about respect, equality and, ultimately, the balance of power. 

From the responses in the room, it is clear that there has been a huge amount of effort put into training, and strengthening policies and approaches, among Dóchas members, but the overwhelming consensus was that there is no silver bullet for this issue. Nor is there a one-size fits all approach. Instead, our responses need to be tailored to context and culture. It was also clear that safeguarding must remain a priority for everyone, and cannot just rest with the safeguarding experts.

The ICVA Report ‘The Long Run to Protection Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse’ is a good starting point to understand the journey that we need to take. It looks at whether the efforts of this international humanitarian network are going in the right direction, as well as exploring the areas where further investment is needed to transform ‘the zero tolerance’ policy on paper into a reality.

When participants were asked what more Dóchas members could do together, there was a strong sense that we needed to start by developing a clear vision – a statement of intent – to show what we want to change. The Dóchas Safeguarding Task Group will need to reflect on that when it meets soon. We have also taken up some very practical ideas such as: 

  • Sharing resources, frameworks and best practice on the Dóchas Safeguarding portal (now live here)

  • Sharing from other sectors in Ireland and keeping members informed of initiatives from other platforms, such as BOND

Above all, we took away from the seminar a deep sense of commitment from participants that silence is not an option.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas.