January 10, 2024

WD2023 Technical Safeguarding Advice: Things I am celebrating and lessons I will carry forward

From our Members, Stay Updated

By Pooja Singh, Girl and Youth Engagement Specialist at AGIP

First, a bit of background…

The Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) was hosted in Kigali- Rwanda from 17th- 20th July, with objectives to ‘Catalyze Collective Action to Advance Gender Equality, Hold Leaders Accountable, Empower the Feminist Movement, Reframe Who Leads and Create Space’ brought together 6300+ participants on-site and 10,000 online. You can read the official post-conference report here.

The Adolescent Girls Investment Plan (AGIP), a coalition whose work is underpinned by meaningful girl and youth engagement and safeguarding, provided technical advice on online and on-site safeguarding measures to keep young people, in all their diversity, safe at WD2023, both virtually and in-person in Kigali.

My experience on leading the technical safeguarding work on AGIP’s behalf

Convening gender equality advocates online and on-site from across the globe called for special attention to ensure their safety and wellbeing, with intentional focus on adolescent and young people in all their diversities. In a system that often leads to chronic burnout for changemakers, the conference provided a unique opportunity to consider safety and well-being as central to any collective mobilisation and not as an afterthought.

Through the waves of enthusiasm, self-doubt, and inspiration I experienced in this process, the AGIP Program Manager, Johanna Schulz, and WD2023 focal point, Julia Fan, remained my constant support. I had a sense that this would be an important piece of work, but little did I know what an eventful journey it would become.

Spanning a year from October 2022 to October 2023, we tackled this work in four phases: (1) preliminary conversations, (2) establishing the Safeguarding Working Group (SWG), delivering technical safeguarding guidance, (3) onboarding the on-site safeguarding team, and (4) closing with the overall review and documentation of the process.

Celebrating the process: I ensured including several, if not all, best practices I have learnt from the sector – young people at the centre, multi-stakeholder approach, and collaborative learning for this technical recommendation piece. Whilst carrying out a desk-based review of existing practices from our coalition members and the wider sector, we also convened a group of safeguarding experts from different regions (Safeguarding Working Group – SWG) and used various methods such as surveys and Focus Group Discussions to include adolescents and youth voices in this process. With the SWG, we continued to learn from what already existed and collectively discussed what more needed to happen.

Celebrating Women Deliver’s multi-stakeholder approach: When I look at the number of actors it took to turn all the technical recommendations into a space and service that attendees could access, I am truly amazed by the transformative power of collaborative work. WD onboarded several partners to bring the technical recommendations to life including, but not limited to, Women Enabled International advising on conference accessibility; DisAbility Link, Experience Dynamics, ThisAbility, and the Markham Group carrying out accessibility audit for in-person and digital spaces and implementing recommendations; Women In International Development creating Holistic Well-Being Spaces; fhi360 bringing the chest feeding and infant care space; Markham group and Natakallam ensuring all communication materials were available in all three conference languages; and several vendors from catering to printing working tirelessly to ensure recommendations do not just remain on paper.

Celebrating the outcome:

  1. Budget allocation: Our continued dialogues with WD ensured that the originally committed amount of USD 20,000 remained intact for safeguarding-specific work, even within the competing budget priorities as the Conference approached closer.
  2. Digital safety: To encourage attention to safety and capacity to implement the same, we curated Digital Safety Guidelines with best practices on creating safe online spaces for young people with a supplementary list of best resources from the social development sector to establish, review and strengthen already existing safeguarding measures. This Guide was added to the formal application process for organising WD related online events and shared with all digital event hosts.
  3. On-site safety recommendations: We made 40 recommendations under eight key categories for safeguarding covering access to information, physical space accessibility, supporting participant readiness, reporting mechanism, monitoring and evaluation, guidelines for event organizers, and on-site staffing. Thirty-six recommendations were implemented fully.
  4. On-site staffing: Our three-tiered model for the on-site safeguarding staff, complete with two Safeguarding Leaders, six Safeguarding Professionals, and 23 Peer Support Volunteers, provided support and expertise to manage a broad range of safeguarding concerns from general discomfort to safety concerns. This model enabled the inclusion of Safeguarding Experts from the host Country, Rwanda, in the role of Leadership and Professionals. It also provided a capacity strengthening opportunity for young people interested in safeguarding and well-being in the role of Peer Support Volunteers. All three roles were professionally compensated. Special attention was paid to ensure inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds (Countries: 16, Age range: 20-60 with 74% under the age of 30)

Celebrating the impact:

  1. Benchmarking and evidence base: This is the first time in the history of Women Deliver Conferences (five since 2007), that such a robust and co-created approach to safeguarding young people was adopted. This provides a solid benchmark for all future conferences to be mindful of centring the safety and well-being aspect beyond the security checks and medical team in a manner that is inclusive and intergenerational.
  2. Experience of the On-site safeguarding staff: The final reporting from the Safeguarding Leadership shows that most of the Safeguarding Professionals and Peer Support Volunteers appreciated their roles and would be open to doing the same in the future if presented with an opportunity.
  3. Experience of the Conference attendees: The number of conference attendees accessing the safeguarding support was not proportionally large. However, the number may not be the correct indicator of the impact. While those who accessed the space were supported, many experiencing difficulties may have reached out to their own focal points, colleagues and or friends. We also know that several attendees were not fully aware of all the safety provisions which I reflect on in the lessons. The Conference survey organised by WD reports that 83% participants felt satisfied, 9% felt neutral, and 6% felt dissatisfied on the question ‘I felt mentally, emotionally, and physically safe to participate.’ However, this data is for all Conference participants and not just the young delegates.

Acknowledging the gaps and carrying the lessons forward

  1. Information accessibility: Despite the intentional efforts to ensure access to all safety related materials on various Conference platforms in advance, it was not fully accessible to all. Several Conference delegates were not aware of all the safety provisions. As a learning, a simplified list of all provisions would have been easier to understand and remember. Also, the use of visuals, quiz/ tutorials and other interactive methods can be utilised to address the lack of awareness and accessibility in the future. However, this would need a more advanced timeline and greater staff capacity than what was possible this time.
  2. Incident management by Conference partners: Despite the advanced communication from and trainings conducted by the WD team to all the conference partners, some delegates experienced identity-based discrimination by the staff and volunteers at Conference venue and hotels.  This brings to light the complexity of safeguarding work. To what extent can measures such as handbooks and trainings truly address deep-rooted prejudices and (unconscious) biases? While each vendor partner is accountable to uphold the agreed human rights and safety measures, social contexts and personal experiences can sometimes over-ride such measures. The only lesson concerning this scenario for me is that safeguarding needs to be further strengthened at all levels in all organisations and more comprehensive learning opportunities are required to create awareness on inherent biases to create spaces that are truly safe for all individuals.
  3. Crisis-management preparedness of the team holding safeguarding responsibility: While the technical recommendations clearly stated the expectation setting and capacity strengthening of the Safeguarding staff on-site, it missed recommending the same for the WD team members responding to safety escalations amidst all the other Conference responsibilities. In a particular instance that included complaints on accommodation facilities ranging from safety issues to lack of provisions, the response was reactionary. Several comments made while addressing the safety concerns were personal in nature and reflected feelings of non-acknowledgment and burnout experienced by the organising team. As a lesson, the wellbeing of the organising team throughout the process and their preparedness to respond to safety escalations becomes critical to the overall process.
  4. Balancing time commitment and expertise: As we reflect on the whole process, we recognise that the delivery took longer than anticipated, maybe even longer than necessary. In a quest to include multi-stakeholder expertise in a sustained manner, the timeline was stretched leading to shifting energies and availabilities. The alternative could have been 2-3 workshop style engagements for longer duration. As we move forward, we will remain attentive to the balance between inclusion and expertise and more strategic in harnessing the best learning in a relatively shorter duration.

Overall, while I celebrate the wins and carry forward the lessons, the dream of more spaces holding safety and well-being as central to their work remains strong as ever. As a whole new year begins, I will just revel in the fact that I now have more knowledge and experience than a year ago and a solid example to say there is really no excuse to not center safety and wellbeing across all components of conference planning (looking at all those organising events and conferences in 2024 with a hopeful mindset).