Emily Hosford, VMMs Child Safeguarding Mentor was interviewed by Patrick Harte
The latest UNICEF child marriage rates in Uganda are 40% married by the age of 18 and 10% by 15. A UNICEF-coordinated national survey on violence against children in Kenya had 73% of males and 66% of females experiencing physical violence before their 18th birthdays. More disconcertingly still, google “child sacrifice” and you will see horrific stories about ritual murders of children.
These are vignettes of the reality in east Africa where corporal punishment is outlawed, children’s acts are in place, and all countries are signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is also the wider backdrop against which Emily Hosford operates as child protection mentor of VMM International, the UK and Dublin-based NGO originally founded as the Volunteer Missionary Movement. Emily, an engaging and energetic 31–year-old from Limerick, leads a small core team dedicated to protecting children and vulnerable adults in targeted areas of Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania. Her work takes her to these countries as she visits VMM International’s partner organisations to help implement child safeguarding policy and procedures.
“We’ve been leading the way in encouraging and promoting child safeguarding with our partners, who have considerable outreach in their communities. We’ve been building expertise over several years, yet safeguarding means the same everywhere – in any country or community – it means protecting children from harm and promoting their rights in a practical way. It’s about creating a culture of safety and openness, within your organisation, school, parish or community.
“Our partners range from civil society organisations to small community-based organisations – clinics, healthcare initiatives, income generation projects for vulnerable people, women’s groups, livelihood schemes – and then diocesan programmes with primary and secondary schools to support, teacher training centres and hospitals,” she adds. “I work closely with the child protection officer as well as other staff members. There are so many people who work against the odds to improve the lives of children and other vulnerable people. Their dedication motivates me in my work and helps me see that my efforts are part of a bigger picture of social action.”
As a faith and values-based international development organisation, VMM has been active in safeguarding for seven years now, supporting upwards of 25 partners first in developing effective policies and understanding what safeguarding means in their contexts, and then in implementing them.
“It’s making children’s rights real,” continues Emily, for whom an on-site visit may last an entire month. “It’s about staff knowing what to do if they witness or hear about something, but it’s also about prevention. Therefore informing and training staff and volunteers about good and bad behaviours with children, what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
VMM – which since its formation in 1969 has placed more than 2,800 volunteer professionals in over 30 countries in capacity-building development work – promotes positive discipline in schools, in contrast to the excessive use of corporal punishment which perpetuates and reinforces cultural acceptance of violence.
“I suppose, in the African countries I’ve been working in there are cultural differences – for example, corporal punishment which is the most common form of abuse. That would be a challenge, getting people to think about other ways of disciplining children they’re either parenting or working with. We’re trying to say you have to have a more positive strategy for disciplining children.” Any attitude change could have far-reaching consequences for current students/future parents.
Thanks to VMM’s existing partnerships with diocesan schools, teacher training colleges, other NGOs and government schools, these partners have appointed specific staff as protection officers who, together with teachers and management, receive mentoring support and training. Parish safeguarding committees have also been established which, by bringing cases to the authorities, have enabled children to be rescued from situations of neglect, abuse, rape, and even witchcraft and sacrifice.
Such initiatives attest to VMM’s modus operandi of responding to locally articulated needs: “It’s not about me, from Ireland, going to another country and saying, ‘this is what you should do’. No, it’s about listening to what the partner staff think – what they need help or support with. It’s an equal approach, usually we’re on the same page. I then support the partner to develop a work plan to address the needs. It’s very practical and supportive, which helps build trust. These partners know VMM already and know the support VMM has given in the past.”
Of the horror stories at the darkest end of the safeguarding spectrum, she adds: “I’ve never encountered child sacrifice in my own work but I know it’s a growing problem in Uganda. They didn’t really have a tradition of that but I saw a couple of stories in the media about child sacrifice. It’s also selfishness that’s causing that – because these charlatans are conning people, saying you’ll get extraordinary riches and good fortune if you do this extreme thing. It’s also a big problem in Tanzania, especially with albino children.”
For Emily, whose career credits include Plan International Ireland and the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, poverty is definitely a big driver in the violence, child abuse/defilement, early/forced marriage, child labour and exploitation that can pockmark communities.
“If you’re more vulnerable in society or your community – if you don’t have anyone to talk to, or nobody takes you seriously – then you’re more likely to be abused,” she elaborates. “That’s the story for children: adults are taken more seriously and that’s a contributory factor. But child abuse is everywhere, in every country and every community. It’s about recognition and reporting, and I think every society has deeply-embedded values of child protection. We all want to see our children do well and want the best for their present and future. You see that in the countries where I’ve been working. Care-givers make enormous sacrifices just to send their children to school in order to give them a better life. That motivates me and keeps me going.”
Given the span and influence of VMM’s partners – who have good standing with local government and traditional leaders – the safeguarding agenda is fairly bursting for Emily and her team. VMM is committed to providing online training on disability and inclusion; resources, updates and knowledge-sharing opportunities via social media; counselling supervision for protection officers; formation and training of more parish safeguarding committees. Additionally, local language radio plays are being produced to increase public understanding of the issues, to be broadcast across the region, including South Sudan.
The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable safeguarding network. “There are a lot of people and organisations doing different things around child protection, so we’re linking them together in order to share that expertise outside of VMM.
“Ultimately it has to be a collaboration between all sorts of organisations – including international ones like Child Focus, Save the Children, Unicef; then organisations who work through partners, like VMM do; then local organisations themselves. I’ve met amazing people through this project who are really passionate about children’s rights.”
Nonetheless, after six years in the international development field, Emily is alert to the obstacles, such as cultural sensitivities, and also cognisant of what Dickens held to be true: that the law is (well, sometimes) an ass. “There are Kenyan people, Ugandan people who in their work are facing opposition. They can be controversial figures because sometimes when you’re discussing child protection it can be a sensitive topic.
“One of the other challenges is working with child protection officers in our partner organisations. Sometimes people come to their office from the community and report abuse; the officers then follow this up and guide the victim and their family through the right legal procedures. But although the laws are there, they’re not enforced by the police.
“It’s one of the biggest complaints I hear and one of the biggest challenges. It’s not all police – quite often there are barriers to justice put in place by the legal system and also by individuals within the legal system. What needs to happen is more training and engagement with local police officers, community development staff and the courts themselves.
“It’s really all about attitude change, and anything to do with attitude change is gradual or generational,” she concludes. “But every day I see evidence of how people cherish children and want what is best for them. This helps me believe positive change is possible. We’re getting there.”