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Protecting children is the most important thing we do

Many of you will have been shocked by the widely reported behaviour of some former Oxfam staff members in Haiti. Like you, and like people across Oxfam, our sector and the UK public, I am utterly appalled by this behaviour.

The issues raised by the Haiti episode fit a broader pattern. Our societies have a systemic problem associated with male abuse of power. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are symptoms of a wider disease that has invaded our institutions – from schools, churches, broadcasters to political parties. Now the spotlight is on the aid sector.

The vulnerability of the people we serve places a special duty of protection on us. Through our work with Rohingya and Syrian refugees, conflict-affected communities in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and people driven to the brink of starvation by drought in the Horn of Africa, we are dealing with some of our planet’s most vulnerable people. These are people, predominantly women and children, who have been uprooted, impoverished and, in many cases, traumatised. It is beyond contempt that some predatory individuals seek to exploit their vulnerability by abusing the power that comes with the role of gatekeeper to life-saving relief.

Save the Children treats the protection of children as a paramount concern. Unfortunately, there are rare occasions when people attempt to use our organisation to take advantage of the imbalance of power created by a crisis. That’s why we have the strongest possible procedures in place to ensure these people are either prevented from joining through background checks, or rooted out through reporting and protection systems.

Cases involving children are reported to the authorities, unless this would expose them to further harm. We also have systems in place to ensure serious allegations of misconduct are reported to relevant donors and the Charity Commission. We record these cases in our annual – and public – transparency and accountability report, along with a clear explanation of the steps we are taking to protect the children, adults, and staff members in our care.

I am determined to ensure that a culture of respect and effective protection exists in Save the Children – both at home and in our programmes. Over the past couple of years, we have greatly strengthened our internal procedures. Today,

  • All Save the Children staff members, regardless of where they work, must declare that they will adhere to our child safeguarding policy and sign our code of conduct – both of which are championed by senior staff across the organisation. All staff members must complete mandatory child safeguarding training (which must be refreshed after two years). And all employees are subject to a criminal records background check (which must be refreshed after three years).
  • We also run a 24-hour Integrity Line for staff members who wish to report any safeguarding concerns anonymously. This is hosted by Crimestoppers, and we maintain a team of Child Safeguarding Focal Points to handle concerns. Focal Points are trained by the NSPCC, and receive internal case supervision before starting work. Our whistleblowing policy also gives staff members direct access to a designated member of the Board of Trustees.
  • All staff members must undertake mandatory Respect in the Workplace training, and we run gender equality training that is supplemented by an active network of gender equality champions.
  • We carry out regular, proactive work with the children and communities we work with on safeguarding and how to report any violations. We have put in place sector-leading guidelines about the management of images and media content. All of this is overseen by our dedicated child safeguarding team.

However, more must be done to ensure that not only are these standards replicated, but that we work together to root out the abuse of power. Yesterday, I wrote to the Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt setting out how Save the Children would like to support the Department for International Development (DFID) – and our colleagues across the sector – to ensure the children and vulnerable people in our care are safe.

These proposals include:

  • The creation of a Global Centre of Excellence for Child Safeguarding in Emergencies. This Centre would create rapidly deployable response teams, with the expertise needed to respond to warning signs of sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse. It would bring together the best research institutes, NGOs and DFID to tackle this problem.
  • The introduction of mandatory humanitarian passports, which would ensure humanitarian workers are able to deploy rapidly but only if they carry all the necessary safeguarding accreditations. This system would prevent the deployment of those who had previously been reported to authorities.
  • A new effort to ensure that Interpol strengthen the global criminal records checking system – this could be much more effective, and we hope the UK Government will lead the charge to ensure it is improved.
  • New regulatory standards that ensure all humanitarian agencies have a legal obligation to report any dismissals.

As an organisation, and as a sector, we have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable children and adults we come into contact with through our programmes. We also have a responsibility to the UK public and to our donors to ensure that we meet the highest standards, not just in financial reporting, but in the behaviour we expect of our staff.

As Penny Mordaunt said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme over the weekend, the humanitarian sector, and the UK NGOs within it, are overwhelmingly staffed by committed professionals, who have dedicated their lives to helping the most vulnerable and to challenging the imbalance of power between peoples, nations and genders. At Save the Children, we are still reeling from the death of our colleagues in Afghanistan – four young men who were educating women and girls in one of the toughest places on earth.

I am so proud that I work for an organisation that is first on the scene in times of crisis, and that is prepared to take such enormous risks to help those in need. It is thanks in large part of the generosity of UK Aid and the British public that we are able to do so. I hope from the bottom of my heart that, by strengthening our resolve and binding us together, this weekend’s revelations will ensure transformational change.

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