Several programmes have encouraged girls to ask sensitive questions by putting out a question box. Girls can put thoughts, concerns or questions in the box and remain anonymous. Although anonymous question boxes can be useful tools for helping girls feel comfortable initially, it should not be considered permanent. In a truly safe space, girls feel comfortable expressing themselves openly.
Participants and their families must trust that all activities associated with a sport programme occur in a secure environment. Sport can play a valuable role in the well-being and development of adolescent girls; however, if child protection and safe spaces are not at the centre of programme design, development and implementation, then that programme risks causing more harm than good.
Programme designers and implementers have a huge responsibility when it comes to ensuring that they are not putting their participants in any further harm and negating the positive outcomes sport can have. This can only be done by establishing non-negotiable policies, practical codes of conduct and organisational processes that truly ensure safe, inclusive space for youth. However, establishing safe spaces goes beyond a policy on a piece of paper taped to the wall in the office. Creating “safe spaces” means creating an atmosphere where girls feel free to express themselves without fear, understand and are free to exercise their rights, and are not afraid to report their rights being violated. This implicates everyone, from coaches to administration, volunteers to visitors, and the girls themselves. (For more information on the responsibility of the sport for development sector in creating “safe spaces”, please read Women Win’s Safe Spaces in Sport: Getting to the Starting Line.)
Martha Brady, of the Population Council, has written extensively about the concept of sport programmes creating “safe spaces” for adolescent girls, a concept now widely understood and promoted within effective girls’ sport programmes.
According to Brady, safe spaces are:
- Free from emotional and physical threat
- Private and confidential
- Culturally acceptable to parents and caregivers yet free from parental pressures
- Conveniently located and familiar to programme participants
- Not subject to intrusions by males un-associated with the programme or unwanted authority figures
Without safe spaces, a girl’s growth is inhibited. If she is fearful of being in physical or emotional jeopardy, she will not take the risks necessary to experience the full benefits of a sport programme. If a girl is afraid she will be ostracized, she is unlikely to share her innermost questions and thoughts. If she is getting tackled brutally by older girls during practice, she will not want to play the game.1
What Is a Safe Space?
A safe space is an environment where girls feel physically and emotionally secure. It is a place where they are protected from bodily harm, including sexual abuse and preventable sport injuries. In a safe space, girls feel free to openly express themselves in a confidential environment, without fear of judgment or intimidation. They are comfortable sharing their deepest concerns and asking sensitive questions. Ultimately, the definition of a safe space depends on how girls feel within that space; therefore, the programme space needs to be consistently evaluated and adjusted by programme leaders and girls.
In 2012, Unicef organisation the International Safeguarding Children in Sport Working Group, which brought together over 30 leaders and thinkings on the topics of safeguarding in sport and came up with 11 international standards or safeguards, which are being piloted by grasroot organisations around the world. Download the Safeguards here.
1. Brady, Martha (2005). Creating Safe Spaces and Building Social Assets For Young Women In The Developing World: A New Role For Sport. Women’s Studies Quarterly 2005, vol.33, no.1&2, pp. 44-45.