Edla Muga, a humanitarian support personnel with Oxfam Great Britain, speaks about Oxfam’s cyclone response in Mozambique in 2019 and the work to reduce safeguarding risks in emergencies.
When Edla Muga arrived in Beira on Mozambique’s central coast in April 2019, the area was recovering from a devastating cyclone. Edla was there to advise Oxfam and other organizations responding to the disaster in the area of protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) committed by aid workers, a tough topic on a good day but especially challenging following a major disaster in a poor community facing down an impending cholera epidemic.
“When I got there, the storm had wiped out a lot of services, and there were more concerns about food and water,” Edla says. “We heard reports of sexual exploitation and abuse as well as gender-based violence, and as humanitarian workers we knew that we had to ensure that these were addressed”
Edla’s arrival in Mozambique came just over a year after allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti were highlighted in the media. What followed was a major shift in focus by the aid sector to focus on PSEA. Oxfam had publicly committed to improving its policies on safeguarding the people it is serving in its programs, and a major emergency affecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people raised a red flag for Oxfam and the other NGOs and UN agencies responding in Mozambique.
Edla, an attorney from Kenya with a background in gender and women’s rights, and her colleagues got to work: Oxfam worked closely with other organizations responding to the cyclone as a member of the inter-agency network responding to the cyclone, and was co-chair of the Beira level PSEA network. She and others working in Beira set up weekly training sessions for all humanitarian staff coming to work in the Beira area to ensure a shared understanding of safeguarding and protection principles. “A group of agencies working under the umbrella of the PSEA Network came up with a common training curriculum for new staff, and we held weekly sessions in both English and Portuguese for at least two months, open to all staff and partners from all agencies,” she says.
“Due to the urgency involved in getting life-saving support to communities during a sudden emergency, many agencies are forced to hire and send staff with no safeguarding training,” Edla says. But agencies and staff from all the groups operating in Beira were enthusiastic. “Everybody was very aware of the dangers of sexual exploitation and abuse and the impact on organizations and communities. All the organizations sent staff to the trainings, and then many of them requested staff working in the PSEA area to come to their offices to do more training.”
For Oxfam staff, Edla reports that the standard protocol was to have safeguarding focal points nominated for each project location. Usually, one male and one female staff member is designated per location with preference given to female staff. This system is usually put in place to support the existing global hotline and safeguarding and whistleblowing emails, and to ensure that staff with no access to phones or internet could orally report to a trusted person. Alongside the focal point system, Oxfam provided awareness-raising materials and inductions for new staff.
Next, Edla says they turned to the communities: “Martin Kern, the monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEAL) lead and I helped establish a reporting system for beneficiaries, where we got the people in the communities in which Oxfam was working to nominate a group of male and female focal points in each project location, whom we referred to as Feedback Committees.” These members of Feedback Committees were then trained on recognizing safeguarding issues, and how to ensure that the Oxfam Safeguarding teams got the information and were able to make reports using hot lines. These reports were referred to safeguarding focal points as well as staff and advisors such as Edla, so they could be tracked and later investigated.
Edla says the goal was to ensure that members of communities are clear that “If any Oxfam worker, or anyone working with us, commits any safeguarding violation they should report it to us, using the hotline, the suggestion boxes , or the community-based focal points so we can investigate it and make sure it won’t happen again. We provide support to the survivor, and ensure that the case is investigated to its conclusion.”
Edla also says that each safeguarding case reported or investigated offers learning for the staff and management as it exposes gaps, weaknesses of the system, and affords opportunities for teams to do things differently and work towards combating and eventually eradicating safeguarding offenses.
Reporting mechanisms need to be tailored to work in the local context, Edla says, so Oxfam staff will for example train a few nominated members of existing committees, for a water project perhaps, “who can report back to our safeguarding staff about violations, and be our eyes and ears…they can be the platform from which communities report orally about a situation. Individually, they can’t always use a phone, or write a report, but you can have someone in a local committee who can report if there is something going on.”
Next challenge: safeguarding communities during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is creating a humanitarian disaster in too many countries right now, which leads to an increased risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, and child abuse, as well as challenges in responding to cases.
“COVID 19 is a Category 1 emergency, and safeguarding will still be an issue like it is in any other emergency,” Edla says, speaking from her temporary post in Yemen. “If you don’t train community members on their rights, if you don’t train staff, partners, and contractors on our code of conduct, then you are likely to have safeguarding violations. It’s an emergency, you have humanitarian workers coming in to support, and whenever people are vulnerable there is a risk.”
Edla says Oxfam is better placed to handle the risk, despite the global nature of the current disaster the confederation is facing. “Whenever there is a safeguarding person on the ground and there is training, I see people become very aware and we get reports. There are still cases, but in general it reduces the cases because people are more careful. People tell me, ‘Edla your department puts the fear of God in people,’ but I just make people aware of what the problems and repercussions can be for both individuals and the organizations and ensure that they know if they are violated, Oxfam will take care of them.”