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What is “safeguarding” and why is it important for fighting poverty?

Jennifer Emond: "The key to making progress is to make sure that safeguarding is at the heart of all the work we do." Chris Hufstader/Oxfam

Jennifer Emond, Oxfam’s senior advisor, explains how Oxfam is preventing sexual harassment and abuse.

Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to this work?

I am a Canadian who has spent the past eight years living and working around the world – in Belgium, Switzerland, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and now the United States. I have a background in policy and public management and have worked predominantly in the international aid sector. I was drawn to safeguarding because, early in my career, I witnessed sexual misconduct and simply did not know what to do and did not feel I could speak up. I hope that, through my work, I can contribute to an international aid sector where we do all we can to prevent this from happening.

How would you explain what safeguarding means?

Safeguarding means protecting individuals, particularly those who might be vulnerable, from harm or abuse. In the international aid sector, “Safeguarding” focuses on protecting both those we serve and those we work with from sexual misconduct. It means putting in place systems to prevent and respond to cases of sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation and abuse.

Imagine your home and your town was destroyed in a flood or an armed conflict. Non-profit organizations, like Oxfam, are there to help you access the goods and services you need – like clean water, shelter, and food. Safeguarding means making sure that those who are there to support communities do not cause harm or take advantage of anyone. It also means making sure there is a way to give feedback, make a complaint, and get help if needed.

Safeguarding is also about creating an environment for staff that is free from sexual harassment – and having in place trusted ways for someone to make a complaint and get help if they choose.

Why did you want to work for Oxfam?

I have always admired Oxfam. The staff I interacted with throughout my career were motivated, professional, and passionate about their work and the people they were there to serve. From a Safeguarding perspective, I was excited to work for an organization that seems really committed to learning from the past, increasing its safeguarding capacity and taking real steps to evolve. Since starting with Oxfam only a few weeks ago, I’ve not been disappointed! The team is great and I’m excited for what’s ahead.

What are the biggest challenges for the international aid sector on this issue?

Safeguarding issues, such as sexual exploitation and abuse, are an unfortunate reality of our society as a whole and the aid sector in particular. The very nature of aid work means that aid workers have access to and control of power, resources, goods, and services in locations where individuals are in need. While the vast majority of aid workers are professional, compassionate people, there is a small number of individuals who have taken advantage, just like any other sector. The aid community has been aware of this problem for decades and has taken steps to address it but abuses continue to occur.

The biggest challenge I see is how to make a meaningful, lasting change and hold ourselves accountable in order to rebuild trust.

How do you think progress will be made on safeguarding in the sector?

The key to making progress is to make sure that safeguarding is at the heart of all the work we do.

With every intervention, we should try to limit the existing power imbalances and empower the people we are there to serve by treating them as partners, not just recipients of aid. This can be done by systematically consulting with the people we serve, enabling their participation, sharing information, getting their feedback, and holding ourselves accountable.

How do we do this?

  • Resources must be invested in capacity to investigate complaints safely, quickly, and independently. We must hold perpetrators accountable and do our best to make sure they do not go on to continue abusing people in another country or in another organization. For this, the whole sector must work together.
  • Safeguarding must be embedded into our work through clear targets, activities, and indicators. Staff should be trained on how.

This is a new role for Oxfam America. What are you hoping to achieve with your work here?

I hope that we can build enough capacity within the organization that, in a few years, my position will not be needed. After all, safeguarding is everyone’s job. I also hope that Oxfam America will be a leader and a resource for other organizations.

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