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Fostering a safe sports environment for children

Children playing on a sports pitch in Colombia
Author: Alexander Cárdenas

Fostering a safe sports environment for children

Alexander Cárdenas shares protection and prevention strategies to address abuse against children and youth in sport for development programmes.

Preserving the integrity, wellbeing and safety of participants of sports-based social interventions, especially children and youth, is recently becoming a growing concern within the sport for development and peace movement. At the most fundamental level, sport for development programmes should provide a space where participants can feel protected from harm, abuse, exploitation and violence, while learning important skills, practices and information that can be applicable to diverse aspects of their lives.

In practice, however, many sports-based social interventions fail to integrate child and youth safeguarding and protection principles and practices as core components of their programmatic activities. Furthermore, the ever-increasing pressure and demands in competitive sport requires new measures in order to reinforce the protection and proper development of underaged athletes.

In order to address these concerns, the High Council of Sports of Spain (CSD) in association with the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), recently delivered the seminar “Protecting Children and Youth in Sport”. Delegates from across the Latin American region participated in the seminar whose aim was to promote the exchange of experiences, lessons learned, best practices and prevention strategies applied by the sport sector, public institutions and international organisations in order to foster a safe sports environment for underaged athletes.

As a participant of this seminar, which took place in Antigua, Guatemala, I was exposed to leading practices in child protection in sport and had the opportunity to share experiences with other practitioners and sport officials from the region on this particularly complex topic. At the core of the seminar there was the message that children and youth have fundamental rights with existing international frameworks to ensure compliance. Nevertheless, due to a myriad of factors, including cultural practices and the lack of concrete national legislation, the rights of children continue to be violated with impunity.

There have been instances where abuses and violations have occurred during the practice of sport. The high levels of demands and dedication in competitive sports, added to authoritarian and excessive coaching practices (which may promote unbalanced power relations between coaches and athletes), for example, constitutes one of the most widespread forms of child abuse in the sports constellation. Another form of aggression and violence against children and youth, sexual abuse, continues to be a taboo topic in sports. Children are particularly prone to abuses during sport for various reasons, including the accepted tolerance to aggression in sport, high level of physical contact, and a system of rewards and punishment which often underpins sport trainings and competitions.

The following prevention and protection strategies may help to minimise abuse against children and youth in sport for development programmes:

  1. Incorporate the rights of children and youth as leading criteria for the organisation and conduct of sport activities that involve minors, while ensuring that the safety and integrity of programme participants is guaranteed at all times
  2. Provide sport practitioners with comprehensive training on children's rights, internal codes of conduct and ethics
  3. Investigate the background of persons working with children in sport programmes
  4. Establish reporting mechanisms and channels that provide children and families victims of abuse with support to denounce wrong-doings in sport programmes
  5. Ensure that these reporting mechanisms act in conjunction with existing national child protection frameworks
  6. Provide trauma healing and recovery assistance to victims of sexual abuse in sport programmes

While these are just a few actions that can be set in motion to foster a safer environment for children and young athletes, key components of this objective include proactive engagement by families and community members in sport programmes, as well as raising awareness about the importance of incorporating best practices on prevention and abuse detection in the sport sector.

Presentations and documents from the seminar (in Spanish) are available online.

Alexander Cárdenas is a researcher and practitioner in sport for development and peace. He has spearheaded various sport-based social initiatives including deportedesarrolloypaz.org, an online platform on sport for development. 

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Tuesday, March 3, 2020 - 14:36