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  • Karen Rasmussen


Recently, a former classmate of mine posed a question on his Facebook page:

“One of the many things I'm fascinated by is group behavioural dynamics… Specifically, around events that stretch over years, are definitely wrong once exposed, but once found out, outsiders think, "why did they not do anything? How was this not known?" You see this most often in very traumatic events, like child abuse at schools spanning decades… Each time, people often knew these things were happening before they were made public. But what spurs the inaction?”

This started a process of thinking for me… There have been countless instances in the past several years of such inaction in the face of clearly wrong – indeed, criminal – behaviour, and yet time and time again, when finally brought to light, it becomes quickly apparent that many people were aware of what was happening all along.

From physical and sexual abuse of children over decades within religious institutions and schools, to the sexual exploitation of children and women in humanitarian settings, to the behaviour of child sex offenders creating or accessing child pornography, to sex tourists exploiting poverty and weak law enforcement in developing countries… Why does there seem to be a culture of silence and inaction which continues to persist, year after year, on the issues of child sexual abuse and exploitation?

While one could clearly develop a multi-chapter report on this issue, I realize that there is often a need for child protection practitioners to be able to ‘distil’ such complex topics for easier explanation to non-practitioners. It is important that everyone is able to begin to understand why child abuse (particularly sexual) continues to happen, and why the culture of silence around it persists.

Firstly, I began to think about the reasons for the silence and inaction, particularly child abuse inside organisations.


Another classmate offered his insight into the original question of “why no action?” by sharing the following:

“As a former mandated reporter for 11 years when I worked for school districts, not once did I receive any training on how to recognise abuse or report it. The best I got was a brochure I received from HR. I wasn’t working directly with kids, but rather in IT for a state administrative agency. I did spend some time researching signs of abuse on the web, but I was never confident I had the information I needed. And even with the brochure, I was never clear how to file a report”. The response above is sadly not surprising to many of us working in this field. Time and time again, when we hear about cases of institutional abuse, it turns out that there were in fact some human resources available to staff. But if those resources are insufficient to be able to help people gain the knowledge needed to recognize the signs of abuse in the first case, cases simply will not be reported.

A brochure that lacks reporting information, mandatory signing of a policy or a staff of code of conduct with no accompanying training– clearly these are not enough for staff to understand what child abuse is, how to recognize it, the importance of mandatory reporting, and the potential negative repercussions of not reporting. Is it little wonder, then, that even those organisations which do have policies in place are not able to implement them properly?

This lack of knowledge often impacts most heavily on communities – if children, or their families, do not know how to recognize or report abuse, it can and often does continue. Even if posters or brochures are available, are these accessible in every language of the community? In pictorial format for those who without literacy skills? Is it in simple and child-friendly language? Is there a clear and robust complaints mechanism, easily-accessible to all?


My classmate’s response is illuminating: Even with the brochure, he had no information on how to report. Clearly it is not enough for organisations to inform their staff members about what constitutes child abuse, or how to recognise it, if there is no system in place for reporting potential incidents. If staff members do suspect abuse (as my friend and his colleague once did), what are they to do with that information?

Raising awareness about child abuse, without providing appropriate, safe and efficient ways to report incidents can actually be more dangerous than no awareness. One reason is that having been sensitized to what abuse is, and how to recognise it, many staff may begin to realise that they have, indeed, been observing cases of abuse within their organisation. Alternatively, if they are still new to the topic, they may be unsure if what they witnessed was, in fact, abuse.

Over time, without a way to report concerns, and/or if response from management is weak or nil, staff can become desensitised or begin to think “What’s the point of reporting? Nothing will change, better to just keep my head down and my mouth shut”. Worse yet, the response may be entirely inappropriate, such as occurred when certain religious institutions simply transferred priests suspected or even known to be child sex offenders to another geographic location. In other cases, organisations arrange financial settlement with families out of court, rather than bringing the offenders to justice.

Little wonder, then, that the abuse within some institutions was able to go on for decades. If a child safeguarding policy is in place, but background screening of new staff is not conducted, how can children be properly protected from those with the intent to harm them? Inappropriate, weak, or non-existent responses demonstrate a lack of leadership within the organisation. They also send the message to the public that protecting children from abuse is not a priority. Clearly this goes against basic human rights, humanitarian, and moral principles, and is in contrast with the values of most organisations, whether they are specifically child-focused or not.


My classmate further explained: “…As a supervisor, I cannot count the number of times a complaint about another employee's behaviour was prefaced with "please don't get this employee in trouble..."

Employees of an organisation may fear physical violence, intimidation, or harassment from those they report on; being ostracised by their peers; or even losing their job. In the case of one international school where a paedophile teacher was allowed to work for 40 years, fellow teachers who reported concerns about his behaviour were threatened with being fired; students who reported abuse were threatened with expulsion. Children, in particular, can fear negative repercussions, and child sex offenders often take advantage of this fear. If such children also live in an environment where they are not listened to – or believed – then there is a strong possibility that they will be scolded or punished for ‘telling stories’, and their concerns completely ignored. And, of course, no actions are taken against the perpetrator.

Sometimes staff or community members may fear besmirching the reputation of the organisation, or the withdrawal of essential humanitarian support. For organisations, if a case of abuse were to become public it could mean the loss of donor funding. For beneficiaries who depend on the provision of vital aid and services from aid agencies, reporting a case of child abuse may not happen if it would mean that the community stopped receiving aid.


While discussing the sexual abuse of children makes people in most cultures uncomfortable, it can be even more difficult to discuss the issue in cultures which are socially or religiously conservative, where there are significant gender disparities, where discussing sexuality is a taboo, where homosexuality is a taboo or illegal, or where the language simply does not encompass all of the vocabulary needed to describe and discuss the issue. Children certainly face some of the biggest challenges in these environments, but women, refugees or IDPs, cultural, ethnic, political or other types of minority groups also face significant challenges in being able to safely report cases of abuse. Power imbalances between perpetrators and the communities they serve or work in can and have resulted in abuse; we have seen this most recently in both the Central African Republic and in Haiti when United Nations peacekeepers have been accused of sexually exploiting children and women. Peacekeepers are by no means the only ones who exploit this imbalance of power: humanitarian workers can threaten to withhold food, medical aid, refugee status, or other crucial necessities; teachers can threaten to fail a student.

Sometimes people may believe that practices which cause harm to children are culturally ‘acceptable’ in some societies, and that as an outsider, it is not their place to criticise such behaviour. In other instances, behaviour on the part of the victimised, such as “survival sex”, is somehow explained away or justified as a necessary evil in that situation.

Child Sex Tourism can sometimes fall into this category – while most people do not believe that abusing children is acceptable, some within a poor community may believe that for a child or their family, sexual exploitation for financial or other gain is an acceptable method of survival, and that perhaps intervention would harm the victim more than the perpetrator. Depending on the situation of law enforcement in the country, this may or not have a certain amount of truth in it.


While responses to the above (by no means complete) list may be complex and involve numerous different steps, in general I believe that potential solutions to the problem of the culture of silence can be condensed into 5 main categories:


It is no coincidence that I have listed this as the first solution to begin ending the culture of silence. All of the numerous issues listed under the four main reasons above can be addressed through adequate, appropriate, timely and professional training. This includes understanding what child abuse is, how to recognise the signs of abuse, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, local legislation related to children, the ways in which having a policy can prevent abuse, and the consequences of not having a policy and procedures. Such training must include detailed information on where and how to report, what to report, the consequences of not reporting, and assurances that the organisation will do all it can to protect the individual reporting.

Cultural issues can and should be addressed in training, particularly for those working in a culture other than their own or in a multi-cultural setting. There must be an emphasis on zero tolerance for any forms of abuse and exploitation, and a focus on doing no harm to beneficiary communities. Power imbalance issues must also be unpacked so all staff understand that inherently, all adults will have more power than a child, and in many settings this power can be exploited. Finally, a culture of openness needs to be encouraged within the organisation; signing and adhering to the policy and code of conduct must be a mandatory condition of employment. At the same time, all staff should be encouraged to ask questions, seek clarification, and report any concerns confidentially and to a specific individual within the organisation.

Child Safe Horizons can provide specialised, tailored training for your organisation or institution which will help protect children, your staff, and your organisation from child abuse or allegations of abuse.


Without accompanying procedures, which should include a clear framework for reporting and following up on child protection concerns, a child safeguarding policy is never complete. A policy must always be accompanied by minimum standard procedures and guidelines. The organisation must also have a whistle-blower policy to protect staff, and a complaints mechanism for beneficiaries which meets the linguistic and cultural needs of the community, and is child-friendly and accessible to children.

Increasingly, donors are requiring that any organization receiving its funding meet certain minimum standards as well. Child Safe Horizons can help your organisation develop a tailored child protection policy and procedures which meets global best-practice and donor standards, yet is specific enough to meet the needs of your organization’s culture and working context.


Once an organisation has designed their policy and procedures, in consultation with various staff and management, and conducted initial training, a system for on-going monitoring of implementation and periodic review needs to be established. Checklists and audit systems need to be established in order to ensure that all procedures are being implemented on a regular basis.

This is particularly important for organizations who work through or with local partner organisations. Ideally, the partner organisation will have developed their own policy, and their monitoring systems will be appropriate to their needs and context.

At the very least, an annual audit of all systems should take place. Ideally, however, all line managers will take it upon themselves to regularly raise the issue of child protection in any available arena, and ensure that field staff in particular are clear on how and where to report any incidents they observe. Child Safe Horizons has standard monitoring templates and audit checklists which can assist your organization in doing this.


Many of us now realize that there are a variety of reasons why the “culture of silence” is maintained in our societies. Perhaps we may even begin to understand some of the reasons people keep up this silence, year upon year, even if they know it is wrong, and particularly if it has gone on for years or gone unchallenged in the past. Yet most of us now also realize that not only were these incidents wrong in the first place, but that if better and stronger training and systems had been in place from the beginning, they may have been avoided altogether.

We know that issues of potential abuse can be addressed by communities and organizations if they begin to implement child safeguarding policies which are robust and meet international humanitarian best practices. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that a donor-approved, best-practise, child safeguarding policy on paper is not worth the ink it is printed with, if it is also not implemented in practice.

We must recognize that violence against children – in all its forms – is for now still a reality for the majority of children in the world. But when we recognize this fact, as non-profit and humanitarian practitioners we must also acknowledge that there is will always be an imbalance of power between ourselves and those we strive to support.

If it is children who are abused by those who work in our own organizations, the nature of the abuse, and the necessary response, is altogether different. The damage brought upon children can last a lifetime. Yet particularly as aid workers, we can and must develop and strengthen policies and procedures to abuse of children, and to ensure that if it does happen, everyone is able to break the “culture of silence” together.


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