Creating A Safe Space

Once policies and processes are in place, there are crucial elements that all programmes should consider when addressing safety. This responsibility falls on not only coaches and facilitators who directly interact with girls on a daily basis, but on all staff and administration of the organisation as well. Everyone involved in the organisation has the responsibility to ensure girls feel emotionally secure and comfortable within their sport environment, protected from physical harm.

Programme leaders cannot always ensure safety outside of their programme. Serving girls fully means giving them the knowledge and skills to handle themselves in their environment, both inside the programme and outside in the world. Programmes can also help girls develop coping mechanisms when personal safety is compromised.

One strategy that your organisation can use is to create, if you have the resources, coaching teams in which every session has two coaches. This allows one of the coaches to give individual time to a player with a physical injury or emotional problem, rather than a single coach stopping the entire practice or session and tending to that single player. If a sensitive situation comes up, one of the coaches can pull that player aside and spend one-on-one time with her to address the situation while the rest of the team plays on. This also reassures the girls that if they have a problem and they come to the coach, their situation can be dealt immediately and privately rather than having the coach stop practice or wait until practice is over to see her.

Tips for creating a physical safe space:

  • Ensure that play space is free from harmful objects, such as broken glass and holes.
  • Always have First Aid materials ready in case of injury.
  • Ensure that girls have adequate protective gear for sports that require it.
  • Schedule sessions at times where girls do not have to walk to or from home in the dark.
  • Establish the rules of the game girls are playing and enforce fair play.
  • Adopt a no-fighting policy within the programme. This should apply to participants, coaches and volunteers and should include physical and verbal attacks.
  • Train the coaches to ensure they are able to maintain safe spaces for the girls.
  • Become acquainted with neighbours in the area.

Tips for creating an emotional safe space:

  • Invite the girls to define what is important for the creation of their safe space.
  • Have girls create and sign a code of conduct for training sessions and sensitive discussions. Have them decide what parameters will be put on confidentiality and the resulting penalties when the agreed upon code is broken.
  • Teach girls communication skills to help them peacefully resolve conflicts among one another.
  • Consider holding sessions in spaces that can be physically enclosed, to keep outsiders out and to help girls feel secure. These do not need to be built from scratch. You can often work out agreements to use existing courts, gyms and public spaces.
  • If possible, forbid non-participants, such as boyfriends, from observing regular practice sessions and discussions as girls are likely to feel intimidated or inhibited in front of an audience.
  • Ensure that there is always an adult woman present when a male is involved in sport training with the girls.
  • In some cultures, creating an all-girl space is necessary for girls to feel emotionally and physically safe. This means no males watching girls play sport or in the room while discussions are held. Therefore, it is important to consider having an all-female coaching staff when working with girls.
  • Be aware of bullying. Demand individual respect from and for all girls.
  • Set out a box for girls to give feedback and suggest conversation topics.
  • Allow girls to speak about sensitive topics in the language that is most comfortable. However, be aware that girls who do not speak the majority language may feel marginalized.
  • Discourage rumours and gossip.
  • Although you should encourage parents to be actively involved in the sport programme in some way, having too much parent involvement could actually keep girls from feeling comfortable and being able to express themselves fully. Let parents know that the girls need their own space as well.
  • Provide private changing rooms. Although a permanent girls-only space is preferable, it is fine to use a space to change that is used by both men and women, as long as boys are prohibited from entering during the time girls are using it. In conservative cultures, it may be necessary to establish same-sex spaces and/or clothing accommodations to ensure girls are comfortable.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse or harassment as well as procedures to ensure that if there is a violation of this policy, all participants and staff understand how to address the problem and the right channels to go through. (Child Protection Policies and Procedures)
  • Revisit these concepts continually. Many programmes have new members joining regularly, and it is important to discuss rules and expectations with new members. Older or more experienced members can lead these discussions.

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.