Addressing safeguarding and SEAH in the COVID-19 response

27 April 2020

Lucy Heaven Taylor and Corinne Davey are specialists for GCPS, a consulting firm that specialises in safeguarding staff, children and communities. Lucy is currently working with the CHS Alliance to develop and refresh CHS verification guidance on protection against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant rapid, significant changes to our operating environment, both in terms of our own ways of working, and the challenges facing the communities we seek to serve.  The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) holds us to account for the quality and accountability of our work.  How can we ensure that we continue to prioritise safeguarding and protection from sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (PSEAH) in the current context?

Commitment 1

Assess and analyse the changes to your ways of working and consider how this impacts on safeguarding. A change in operating model means a shift in safeguarding and SEAH risk. You will need to re-assess risk by considering:

Your operating model

  • Are programme activities changing, or being suspended?
  • What contact are you having with communities and beneficiaries? Is it face-to-face, remote, online?

The communities and individuals you work with

  • What is the risk profile of each group you are coming into contact with? Is it the same as prior to COVID-19 or has it changed?
  • Are there changes to referral pathways for safeguarding concerns, or are existing pathways less, or non-functional?

Commitment 2

Programmes are realistic and safe. Some risks will decrease, and some will increase.  For example:

Change in operating model Change in risk
Programme suspended meaning no face-to-face contact with beneficiaries Risk of exploitation and abuse by staff may decrease
Suspension of critical activities such as distributions May increase risk to certain groups in the community as they turn to riskier coping strategies

Experience from countries who are currently responding to the COVID-19 crisis has shown an increase in many safeguarding and protection issues, such as gender-based violence in the home, child protection issues and safeguarding issues for people living with disabilities, as well as gender-based violence and harassment of women healthcare providers.  You may need to review your procedures for identifying and referring safeguarding concerns that arise in the course of your work, considering:

  • Do these specific risks require different or additional referral pathways?
  • Are there any changes to referral pathways – for example if services are closed or otherwise overwhelmed due to the pandemic.

Ensure that you update the risk assessment as the situation evolves.

Commitment 3

Identify and act on potential negative impacts. The new environment means that many of us may be operating more through partners, or other stakeholders.  Some things to consider:

  • If new actors are involved in programme delivery, ensure they are clear on safeguarding policy and responsibilities.
  • Ensure partners are clear on what we expect of them in terms of safeguarding, especially if this means increased responsibility.
  • Provide partners with support on meeting any increased responsibility.

Review learning from other remotely managed programmes, for example in Syria or Somalia, and from other outbreaks such as the Ebola crisis, to see how it might apply to the current situation.

Commitment 4

Communicate with communities. If your activities are moving online, be aware of safeguarding implications of this.  If you are interacting with children or at-risk adults online, or increasing the interaction between staff online, appropriate safeguards will need to be in place.  Some things to consider are:

  • All staff engaging in online communication with children and at-risk adults should be vetted to the same level as for face-to-face interaction.
  • Any online programme activities that allow people to interact and communicate with each other – for example joining youth activists, or event participants together to mobilise on a particular issue – should be safely and appropriately moderated at all times by the organisation.

Commitment 5

Appropriate complaints mechanisms. Assess how you will enable concerns to be raised if you are not present on the ground.

  • Do any of your existing community-based reporting mechanisms still work in the new operating environment?
  • Consider which means of communication are secure and accessible for people to use – for example this could be a dedicated WhatsApp line, if these are secure in your location.
  • Ensure that any channels used are communicated to communities and partners in ways that are familiar and appropriate for them, for example social media platforms or radio messaging.

Consider what capacity your organisation has to handle reports if they come in during this time.  All investigations should always be thoroughly risk assessed to consider risks to all involved.  This risk assessment should include specific risks to investigating in the current context, particularly how confidentiality might be managed in remote and online communication.

Some issues to consider:

  • Do you have enough information and access to be able to conduct the investigation remotely? For example are all the witnesses identified and contactable?
  • Does your organisation have the capacity to investigate remotely, for example via Skype? If so you will need to consider the specific safety and confidentiality issues of remote interviews.
  • If not, how can we prevent continuing harm to people involved? Some examples could be closing down programme activities, or removing the Subject of Concern from duty – these decisions will obviously come with their own risks that need to be assessed and managed.

Commitment 8

Security and wellbeing of staff. Ensure that your staff’s security and wellbeing remains a priority.

How has work changed for your staff?  Are they furloughed or working from home?  What is their location?  Some things to consider:

  • With less security and less structure to working practices and compound operations, staff may face increased risks.
  • Staff interacting online need to be guided by codes of conduct in the same way as through in person interaction e.g. clear guidance on bullying and harassment online, what is inappropriate behaviour in the use of online platforms for staff.

For more advice and guidance on how to meet CHS commitments during the COVID-19 response, visit our dedicated CHS & COVID-19 resource hub.

In these challenging times, PSEAH guidance continues to evolve rapidly. Lucy is currently working with the CHS Alliance to update our PSEAH guidance, drawing on CHS verification data from the PSEA index.

It is critical that our members inform this important piece of work. We will shortly be circulating a survey with Alliance members to gather their views on the guidance. Make sure your voice is heard.