Five questions to ask about safeguarding and COVID-19

With COVID-19 affecting all of the countries we work in, it’s not just the technical delivery of our programmes that we have needed to revise. This virus has raised risks and challenges to all of the cross-cutting considerations on our programmes – perhaps most of all in our approach to safeguarding.

In this blog, Anna Misterska, our safeguarding lead, details the questions we’ve asked ourselves and what we’ve done in response to ensure the safety of everyone we work with.

We are all facing unprecedented times as a result of COVID-19. The international development sector is no different to others. We are adapting our programmes and ways of working to meet the changing needs on the ground while keeping our staff, partners and suppliers safe.

It could be easy to just focus on delivery and let that learning curve consume our attention. But it’s vital to review our wider organisational policies and procedures – to makes sure they’re still fit for purpose and that we’re still doing everything we can to safeguard the people we work with.

It is great to see that so many experts, organisations and donors are asking those difficult questions and are challenging the sector to keep safeguarding at the heart of our work – especially now. There is already a wealth of guidance about safeguarding and COVID-19 available online. But where do you start? The following five questions can help to kick start the review of your safeguarding set up:

1. Do you understand the safeguarding risks linked to COVID-19?

As the virus was spreading, in spring this year the UK Department for International Development (DFID) requested the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Helpdesk team – managed by our Malawi VAWG programme partners, Social Development Direct – to undertake a rapid evidence review of how COVID-19 might impact women and girls based on data from Ebola, cholera and Zika epidemics. The review outlines emerging evidence which shows that we are going to see an increase in domestic violence, VAWG, racial and sexual harassment (both offline and online) and abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women workers, among other risks. COVID-19 is expected to reinforce pre-existing gender inequality and harmful social norms, significantly increasing safeguarding risks. It is critical that we understand the gendered dynamics, child protection risks and other context-specific factors when making changes to programme operations and design.

2. Do your staff, partners and beneficiaries know what they can report and how to do it? Are the reporting systems still accessible?

With staff working from home and programme operations being delivered remotely, it is important that we stress-test our safeguarding reporting systems to make sure they are still accessible. For example, you may need to consider introducing new ways of reporting allegations – through confidential email addresses, dedicated phone lines or other context-relevant and accessible channels. It is then equally important to make sure that people know how to use them.

3. Has your investigations and case management capacity changed?

If an allegation is made, do you have in-country capacity to conduct a safe and survivor-centred investigation by a trained team? You may need to consider conducting part of the investigation remotely or postponing it until you are able to complete it properly. Plan International has put together a great guide for managing investigations in the light of COVID-19 that provides much more detail on this subject.

4. Are you able to provide survivor-centred support?

Any safeguarding response must be survivor-centred, age-appropriate and gender sensitive. But with so many local services closed, overwhelmed or otherwise affected by the pandemic, are you still able to refer a survivor to the most appropriate service? Local teams should review their lists of local services to make sure that their preferred providers are still accessible and able to support.

5. Have all staff completed their training?

It is important that all staff are trained on safeguarding and that they understand what it means for their roles and their programmes, especially in the current context. You can also consider offering a refresher course on safeguarding using existing online resources, such as this training on Safeguarding Essentials hosted by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy.

While these questions may outline the initial considerations that programmes should take into account, we also cannot underestimate the importance of safeguarding culture in our organisations more broadly. This is the time for the senior leadership teams to provide guidance and reassurances, demonstrating their commitment to our values and codes of conduct. It is definitely something that their staff will be looking out for.