Training the trainer in Iraq: human-centered design at work

Oxfam's Public Health Promotion team in Iraq

Oxfam's Public Health Promotion team in the streets of Hay Al-Tanak, a vulnerable neighbourhood of west Mosul. The team distributes commode and diapers to disabled adults who are unable to use the bathroom (please note these picture is not related to safeguarding). Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam


“There is flexibility in my work that gives me the freedom to make my own decisions. That is what I need to improve my actions to protect vulnerable people and improving at that is what I like!”

Safa Hassan
Safeguarding Focal Point

Safa Hassan, Protection Officer, is based in Salahaldin. Safa joined Oxfam in 2018 and became Iraq’s first Safeguarding Focal Point.

Her training, from the Safeguarding team based in Amman, was an intense, eye-opening experience, shared with staff from several other Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area Oxfam offices. Safa greatly appreciated the exchange of knowledge with Safeguarding Officers from other countries.

“I like working for Oxfam because they want you to take responsibility in your work. There is a certain amount of flexibility that gives me the freedom to make my own decisions in my work. That is what I need to improve my actions to protect vulnerable people and improving at that is what I like!”, she says.

‘Your word counts’

In 2019, Oxfam Great Britain, in collaboration with the Oxfam in Iraq team and the Oxfam MENA Regional Platform, conducted research in Iraq, Ghana and Myanmar using a human-centered design approach to analyze and understand the critical barriers and preferences influencing community members around reporting of sexual exploitation, abuse and fraud.

The goal was to understand these preferences with a view to designing feedback mechanisms that are context-specific and community-led. The ultimate, broader goal of the research was to ensure that we provide safe and confidential mechanisms, as well as strengthen our accountability, to affected persons.

Local context

The research was carried out in the communities of Tikrit and Baiji in Salahaldin and Mosul in Nineveh. The research teams conducted interviews in a variety of settings (camps, cities and villages). All locations have been controlled by ISIS in recent years and have been significantly impacted physically and socially by the political instability and armed conflict present in Iraq since 2003.

Tikrit is the capital of the Salahaldin governorate and where Saddam Hussein was born was captured in 2003. Baiji and its adjacent oil field were seized by ISIS in June 2014. The area is currently controlled by the Iraqi security forces, police and Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Mosul, held by ISIS from 2014-2017, is surrounded by camps originally built by the international community to support displaced families but now home to families seen to be affiliated with extremist groups. Many of these communities have been told that they are not welcome to return home.

Key safeguarding challenges

The research revealed many challenges to safeguarding in Iraq. These included personal, interactional and structural factors. For example, the research found that there is a general lack of awareness about reporting mechanisms, as well as a view to see how organizations handle other complaints, such as something that needs to be fixed. If an organization deals with this quickly and efficiently, there may be more of a reason to trust their ability to handle complaints of misconduct. Overall, there is lack of trust of outsider mechanisms for sexual exploitation and abuse. As one Mukhtar (male village head) told researchers: “SEA would be handled by the tribal community not the INGO, because communities in their nature are “closed” and this (the issue) needs to stay confidential.”

Reporting SEA is also specifically inhibited by elements of shame and fear. For example, participants talked to the researchers about how reporting SEA could have a detrimental impact on survivors should their families or tribe discover what has happened. Some participants explained that this could be viewed by a survivor’s family as bringing shame to the family’s reputation, and this could have long-lasting repercussions for survivors including physical harm. The process of reporting therefore is viewed to sometimes be dangerous, and there is a need for it to be safe and confidential.

A female community member, a voice that the human-centered design research was set up to hear, told researchers that: “SEA issues are solved by the tribe, not the police, according to our community culture. Women have no freedom and we have to keep it confidential.”

Understanding the reality of the difficulties faced in reporting issues of SEA from some participants in Iraq is helping us to work towards overcoming these challenges. Oxfam in Iraq are working in many different areas to help deconstruct harmful gender norms and strengthen women and girls’ agency to report harmful behavior. In order to do this, we need to be able to think about reporting SEA holistically and as a part of broader change.

Hamam Alil Transit Site, Iraq

Oxfam's Protection team manages the information desk at Hamam Alil transit site where people arrive from Mosul. The team give families information about where and how to access the various services available to them and refer them to other NGO's working in the site (please note these picture is not related to safeguarding). Photo: Amy Christian/Oxfam

In their different ways, both statements underscored how crucial it is in Iraq to have safeguarding mechanisms that are perceived as local (enough), yet that still provide confidentiality and security for victims. Following the research in Iraq, a meta-analysis has been published by Oxfam GB. This analysis emphasizes the linkages between acceptance of GBV and SEAH (Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment)/ Safeguarding.

The report highlights the need to explore how social norms relating to the reporting and acceptance of GBV influence social norms relating to the acceptance and reporting of SEAH. The report recommends that this exploration be carried out with the view that overall, by combining safeguarding practice with gender transformative programming, we will understand that sexual abuse does not happen in a vacuum and that it requires comprehensive and holistic solutions that put women and girls (as primary survivors of SEAH) at the center.

Positive response to training from community partners

In 2020 Oxfam supported 28 local organizations in Iraq to develop their own Safeguarding code of conduct and Protection and Gender-based Violence (GBV) policies. The partners, mostly humanitarian response organizations working with communities of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and affected returnees, expressed themselves as being very happy with the trainings. Partners especially called out Oxfam’s focus on staff empowerment and capacity building, rather than the more common INGO format of handing out a series of programs to be implemented without development.

Safa’s description of her recent visit to a community partner that has successfully built their own safeguarding program (reporting mechanism) reaffirms the positive response for long term to Oxfam in Iraq’s safeguarding efforts. She reported that: “They already had a Code of Conduct but did not link how it influenced their activities. They liked Oxfam’s approach because it supported them in finding their own strategy and in building the skills to help implement it, for example: creating a website, call center, internal reporting mechanisms, social media strategy, etc.”

Now that its policies are in place, this partner is being supported to draft a five-year strategy to strengthen their accountability and sustainability. According to Safa, “It is a fact that local NGO’s find funding more easily if they have proper policies in place.”

Training protection committees in IDP communities

Safa is currently coordinating and training protection committees made up of volunteers (both IDPs and returnees) in the IDP communities Oxfam works with. These are people affected by the 2014 ISIS crisis, which Oxfam initially responded to with WASH and Shelter, and expanded during 2020 with Covid-19 hygiene and sanitation activities. Iraq’s two-month total lockdown not only hindered this work, but had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of the IDP communities, especially as they had almost no access to medical facilities or health care.

Despite Covid, five trainings have been conducted in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee  (IRC) and the Justice Center. The organizations worked as a consortium to train partners handling legal cases dealing with detention, sexual exploitation and GBV. In line with Oxfam GB’s 2019 findings, reliance on informal justice mechanisms are ongoing challenges to this training work.

Nonetheless, the Oxfam Iraq Safeguarding Team continue supporting partners fighting legal battles, doing risk assessments for every case reported and disseminating knowledge about human rights. As Safa says, “It always starts with our own teams. For each new staff member it is mandatory to obtain knowledge of our safeguarding protocol and Code of Conduct.”