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Safeguarding and sport for development during and after the pandemic

19 Oct 2020
Daniel is looking at the basketball pitch

By Artur Borkowski, Liz Twyford

This blog is part three of a series highlighting innovative responses to COVID-19 from S4D organizations. UNICEF Innocenti is conducting research on S4D in collaboration with the UNICEF- FCB and Barça Foundation partnership.  The first blog in the series discussed innovative responses S4D organizations have taken  globally to adapt to the crisis. The second blog explores the challenges faced in South Africa’s unique contexts and different responses to them.Sport for Development (S4D) organisations have adapted their programming to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis through continued support including remote learning, providing health information, and supporting their staff to support other programs. In this blog we explore the new risks and challenges raised by the crisis and how organisations can use this time to make sure the return to play is safer than ever.All children have the right to participate in sport in a safe and enjoyable environment as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sport can contribute to positive youth development and to building life skills. Moreover, it is widely perceived that sport can help to steer young people away from risky behaviours such as youth in conflict with the law and aggressive and violent behaviours by strengthening social bonds with positive actors.However, the perception that sport is only a force for good for children has been challenged. Sport can also bring risks such as violence, exploitation and abuse, and there are also some risks which are unique to sport, such as abuse for elite young athletes, risks from training when injured, and issues like doping and hazing. These risks need to be minimized and children and young people protected.

Risks and Challenges

While many S4D and sport organisations, including those that form part of the International Safeguarding Children in Sport Initiative, consider safeguarding an essential component of programming, the COVID-19 crisis brings new risks and challenges


Managing these risks and overcoming these challenges has the potential to help organisations become even stronger. Shrinking Budgets: If the crisis has meant that staff with a particular responsibility for safeguarding are not currently working, this presents an opportunity to ensure that safeguarding is embedded in everyone’s roles. As a rule of thumb, no more than a third of safeguarding responsibilities should be held by staff with a specific safeguarding role - Safeguarding is the duty of care we all have, for all children in our programmes. Organisations could use this time to:
  • raise awareness and understanding about what safeguarding is and what everyone’s responsibilities are, which will help reduce safeguarding risk now, and in the future;
  • check policies and programming to make sure they are following good practice guidance such as the The International Safeguards for Children in Sport or the FIFA Guardians
 Stigma can lead to bullying and emotional abuse, so it is really important to have strategies ready to tackle new forms of discrimination that may arise as a direct result of the pandemic. Organisations probably already have codes of conduct for staff and participants – this could be a great time to revisit those in light of COVID-19 and have discussions about treating everyone with respect and the importance of hygiene measures, as well as taking time to dispel any myths about the disease. Remote programming and engagement: Sports coaches, who would normally interact with children face to face, may be engaging with children in an online environment and may be unfamiliar with the risks this situation presents, or how to plan online activities safely. The online environment can be a positive space that connects and educates children, but it is also a space where children can be put at risk of harm and vigilance is needed. Some simple tips for making this a safer space include: 
  • Plan any online contact with safeguarding in mind – Just as you would plan any face to face activities with children, think about any risks and mitigations.
  • Be accountable – Avoid one-to-one online contact with children and if possible, always have another adult involved in the group discussion.
  • Keep professional boundaries – everything can feel very familiar and informal when engaging with people online, but it is important to remain professional and have clear boundaries at all times.
  • Separate out and close off accounts - It is good practice to use a different account for engaging with children or young people so that you do not have to share personal social media contact details and there can be no confusion about the nature of the contact.
  • Be ready to report – You may become aware of a risk of harm to the child or children you are engaging with. Be aware of how to report any concerns, both where the child is in need of immediate medical or police assistance or where you can contact support agencies after the online session has finished.
You can find more guidance or safely engaging with children online here:  https://www.unicef.org/online-safety/ Resuming programming: Many organisations have continued to run sports activities, either because they are in communities without confirmed cases, or have adapted activities to ensure social distancing is maintained. Nevertheless, creating an environment where COVID-19 is transmitted because an organisation has failed to take the right measures is a safeguarding risk – it is important to risk-assess any activities, thinking about how children will travel to the activity, how the sport will happen in a safe way and other factors such as spectators.Additionally, children already living in vulnerable circumstances have been made more vulnerable by lockdowns, and traditional sources of support and protection, including the S4D programmes they attended, have been taken away. When children do return they may be suffering from trauma as a result of their experiences during lock-down, or as a result of sickness or bereavement. Now is the time to make contact with organisations in the community that can offer emotional support and adapt your programmes to follow more trauma-sensitive activities. Organisations need to be ready to refer children to specialist services if they disclose abuse that they have experienced during lock-down. 

Final Thoughts

Now is a time for organisations to strengthen all aspects of their approach to safeguarding: from embedding this responsibility across the organisation; to developing links with local experts who can support with referrals or provide emotional and mental health support; to better understanding and addressing risk online. Acting now will strengthen programmes in the short and long term and make sure children who are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis are supported by organisations at the top of their safeguarding game. 
Liz Twyford is a Sports Programmes Specialist at Unicef UK - specialising in the impact of sport on children’s rights, with a focus on safeguarding in sport Artur Borkowski is a consultant at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti currently conducting research on the effectiveness of Sport for Development for Children globally.