Safe sport: small steps for big impact

  • Football children Egypt
International Platform on Sport & Development

Sport must be a safe, positive and enjoyable experience for all children, especially to achieve protection outcomes in sport for development projects.

We love sport! It is not an exaggeration when we say that the majority of humans love sport and movement. Yet, when things go wrong, the enjoyment and positive values that sport holds can be countered by abuse, exploitation, and aggression. It’s a truth; it extends to violating fundamental child rights and causing long-term detrimental effects on their physical and mental health. These negative effects are not unique to professional and competitive sports, as they can also be observed in development and humanitarian settings.

Sport can play a key role in child protection, mental health recovery, and community engagement, and children benefit greatly from their involvement in games and sports. For instance, football is being widely used for social cohesion, while traditional games are used for the preservation of identity in displacement contexts. Nevertheless, children and youth face the risk of abuse and harm, irrespective of their age, gender, race, culture, religion, ability or sexual orientation. Terre des hommes (Tdh) supports UEFA to implement a Europe-wide child safeguarding programme, covering both preventive actions – policies, practices and procedures – to mitigate the chances of harm occurring, and responsive actions, to ensure that incidents are handled appropriately.

Both Sport+ and +Sport organizations need to set up systems and policies that promote safe sports for children. All organisations need to identify the potential threats that surround their activities and take adequate measures to counter them. But what if adequate safeguards are not put in place?

In order to contextualise the argument a bit, here’s a story that repeats itself in a variety of contexts, and in different forms. An organisation is seeking to introduce cricket as a tool for supporting refugee boys and girls. During the planning phase, and due to limited resources, the organisation refrained from elaborating child protection and safeguarding policies; they settled on general policies and internal by-laws that allowed them to register with the government. Recruitment was made from the community based on skills in playing cricket, and no training on protection and safeguarding was provided. Some weeks into the activity, a child reports being physically and emotionally assaulted by her coach. As the organisation had not foreseen this event, and had not prepared a response mechanism, they failed to address this violation. The organisation lost its reputation and faced community resistance, which eventually led to the dissolution of their projects and activities.

Child protection experts argue that some organisations do not see safeguarding as a priority. Cultural, social, financial, and capacity barriers might stand in the way of safe sports. In some cases, organisations are not equipped with the right knowledge and tools to identify and address risks. In some societies, good faith and trust in people’s reputations is one of many barriers to acknowledging the necessity of child safeguarding from abuse and harm during sport activities. And in other cases, some practices can be culturally acceptable. Safeguards are important because they can guarantee that our activities don’t cause any harm to the participants, coaches, the organisation and the community.

Safeguarding starts by acknowledging the need to keep children safe. It only takes some simple steps to keep children safe during activities: identify the risks, choose an adequate location, put in place a child protection and safeguarding policy, and choose and train your coaches carefully.

In response to unsafe child migration, Tdh Foundation – Lausanne, and partner Praajak started a kabaddi activity in order to achieve increased self-protection and community participation for girls in 2019. Before initiating the project, community consultations confirmed the interest in kabaddi for girls; the original idea came from a group of mothers who had played kabaddi as part of another project. A contextualised safeguarding policy and a set of key steps were designed with the support of children; it´s a sensitive situation, especially as the playgrounds were mostly public. Playing in public spaces might expose the girls to a variety of threats like physical injury and harassment during movement to and from the location. In order to respond to this situation, the Kabaddi for Protection methodology was put in place in addition to the safeguards.

Only a clear and consistent policy framework can prevent harm and abuse. A constant review of policies and update of rules relating to children’s rights is necessary to integrate up-to-date standards and best practices. By providing a safe environment and involving young people in meaningful roles, sport can enhance their individual and collective skills and capacities. To set a framework for this theory, Tdh Foundation designed a number of toolkits and methodologies, built on strong safeguards; the Sport for Protection toolkit (in partnership with the International Olympic Committee and UNHCR), Movement Games and Sports (MGS), and the Sport for Protection (S4P) Methodology, among others.

Sport is often seen as a “magical tool” that can change children’s lives (and it can); however, we need to consider some of its potential negative experiences like bullying, negative competition and cheating, which can do more harm than good. Preventative actions like staff training and policy development are key, but also critical incident planning and response mechanisms are essential for children’s recovery from harmful experiences. There are often gaps between realities and policies, where front-liners lack the tools to make safeguarding a reality. Child-friendly policymaking is essential for children to have a say in their own protection. To be effective, we need to provide practical tools and training on the prevention, identification, reception, and management of potential child rights violations in sport; through exchanging and learning from each other’s experiences we can make potential violations a pit-stop, avoid the falls in sport for development, and provide effective recovery routes for survivors.  

Author: Johnny Gerges, Consultant for Terre des Hommes Foundation. For more information and exchange, please contact Maria Bray, Global Protection and MHPSS coordinator, Tdh Lausanne, on