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Do no harm: Safeguarding children in sport

Children playing jump rope
Copyrights: UNICEF

Do no harm: Safeguarding children in sport

Liz Twyford from Unicef UK writes on the importance of local support in effectively implementing global safeguarding standards.

Setting aside development for a moment, lets just think about sport. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sport is: “activity that you do for pleasure and that needs physical effort or skill, usually done in a special area and according to fixed rules."

I would argue that the first line is perhaps the most relevant and compelling: an activity you do for pleasure. What does this imply when thinking about sport for development?

Well first, activities need to be fun; participants need to be attracted to join in and enjoy themselves, so they want to stay engaged. But for something to be fun, there are other considerations:

  • Is it fair? Do we play according to agreed rules?
  • Is it inclusive? Does everyone have a chance to take part?
  • Is it a quality experience? Is it pitched at the right level for age and ability? Are coaches trained in the sport and in how to coach people well?
  • It it safe? Does taking part put participants at risk of non-accidental harm?

It’s this final point that sits at the heart of effective sport and development work. Unless those responsible for delivering sports activities first understand how they can prevent the risk of harm happening and also know how they will respond if something does go wrong, then all the other benefits that can be derived from taking part in sport may never be fully realised. Worse still, people may experience things that actively do them harm.

That is why in 2012, Unicef UK worked with organisations around the world, from across sectors spanning child protection, sport for development and elite sport, to develop the International Safeguards for Children in Sport. They aim to support anyone linked to sport to understand their risks to children, to take action to prevent those risks becoming reality and to respond effectively when harm occurs.

This was a great start, a global framework to start the conversation about making sport safer and provide some guidance on things that would help organisations begin their safeguarding journey. But global guidance is only one part of the picture. Local understanding, local support and local champions are the things that makes the difference, that can help translate global guidelines into local action.

Near the end of 2019, a group of us got together in Trinidad to start to explore how to translate the International Safeguards to the Caribbean context. One example really brings to life why this contextualisation is so important.

Vaneisha Cadogan from the Barbados Olympic Committee was part of the co-creation team, and she was tasked with delivering a session on risk to Trinidadian sports organisations, to test the activities we had developed together.

Rather than refer to a table with headings about risk, ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ an activity, which we had previously used, she instead asked the group: "You’ve just heard the hurricane warning; it's coming in 3 days, what do you do?"

This immediately resonated with everyone present, and led to a nuanced activity, examining the preventative and reactive risk management that happens before, during and after a hurricane, exploring why things were done, and even referencing the different levels of preparation you would need for different categories of hurricane.

The participants immediately understood how to apply the same concept to their own work; for example, how best to understand and address the risks connected with a sports event. In bringing the concept to life by using such a familiar and relevant example, the participants that took part that day are now much better equipped to prevent harm from happening in sport, and to respond if it does.

What does this mean? Well ‘do no harm’ has to be our watchword, and using global guidance is a great place to start, but making it work in your context is the key. That is how we will move faster on our collective journey towards safer sport for children, and for everyone else who takes part.

Liz Twyford is a sports programme specialist at Unicef UK.

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Liz Twyford

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - 10:24