Sharing my safeguarding story

7 min read
Image: Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

Content warning: this articles includes a story about sexual harassment and sexual exploitation in the workplace. 

I would like to share a personal experience that I haven’t shared with anyone for more than ten years, even my family and close friends.

I have been working in the development sector for many years but my first journey working in non-government organisations was not that smooth or enjoyable.

A few months after starting work with one organization (which wasn’t WaterAid) I started receiving text messages from one of the international staff members, especially during the weekend. The content of the texts made me feel uncomfortable after reading them and were absolutely related to sexual harassment.

At that time, I replied to him by asking “What do you mean?”. He replied to me by saying he was only “teasing me”. His word ‘teasing’ meant a lot to a young woman like me. It made me feel uncomfortable, feel shame and feel fear in communicating with that man. I wished to not see him in the office. I assumed he was doing this to many women staff at the same time, not only me.

I did not know what to do. I did not know if it was inappropriate behavior or if it was ok that he sent text messages like this. I did not know who I should consult with because when I joined that organization I did not get any proper induction from the HR department about their people policy or safeguarding policy and reporting procedure. Therefore, I decided to keep quiet and work as if everything was normal.

However, part of this situation encouraged me to look for a new job. I thought it was better for me to leave this organisation and then the problem would be solved. Luckily, I got a new job with another organization after a few months.

Even though I had left that organization I still kept in touch with some colleagues who were still working there as we had become friends. One day - maybe about one year after I left that organization - my friends told me that one of the field staff got pregnant with that man (her kid is growing big now). We felt sorry about that news and we believed it was sexual exploitation. The most upsetting thing was that the organization took no action to support her in how to deal with this matter. The field staff only got gossip around her story as our society would not value the women who had sex or had a baby before getting married. How painful this is!

I joined WaterAid in 2014 as the Operations Manager and assisted WaterAid to establish in Cambodia. As I said, initially I was hesitant to share my story, but I wanted to speak out to help others to know that this behaviour is not OK. After I shared this story at WaterAid I received an Outstanding Award of “Courage Value” from WaterAid as I was courageous to share my story to others.

When I told my friends that I got this Courage Value award from my organization, one of friend asked ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. I told her that I got the award because I shared my personal story that I used to be sexual harassed at my previous organisation by international staff. I told her the content of the messages. What surprised me was that my friend said she also got that kind of inappropriate messages from men. It seems it’s happened to many people too. We still have a long way to go, but we are making positive steps.  WaterAid has created a working culture quite different from others, especially when I compare it to a number of organisations that I have previously worked. WaterAid is an organisation that focuses on people and people’s well-being. WaterAid has been trying to build a culture that creates a safe place for all and safeguarding is our key priority in order to deliver our mission without harming anyone including our staff, volunteers, interns, partners, and especially the communities that we are serving.

To do this, WaterAid often revisits the policies and procedures related to safeguarding to  ensure that everyone understands the meaning of safeguarding. While we reviewed and updated the policy, all staff members, from all levels, got involved in the discussion. We discussed in detail by reading each sentence of the policy and sharing what staff understood from one sentence to another. We encouraged all staff to ask questions and get clarification as much as possible before finalising. We revised the language by using the simple language in English and translating it into local language to help increase staff understanding. We organised a follow-up training to ensure everyone understood the definition of unacceptable behaviors and reporting processes. We also encouraged staff to raise their concerns, knowing that WaterAid has created a safe place to report any incidents about safeguarding.

Moreover, we have been thinking for a long time about how we should involve external stakeholders (such as our partners’ staff, consultants, and government counterparts) to join the conversation about safeguarding even though they are not our staff. Finally, we made this happen.

WaterAid organised a one day workshop on safeguarding for 20 external participants (11 people from government counterparts). Our main objective for that workshop was to raise awareness of safeguarding and why it is important for everyone as a human being. We did a lot of roleplaying, quizzes, and group discussion on definitions of inappropriate behaviors such as bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual exploitation and abuse. Some of the participants already understood those definitions but not in depth, so during that day, we were trying to provide each other with a deeper understanding.

One participant raised an example that if a victim (a woman, in his example) keeps quiet about someone (a man in his example) behaving inappropriately towards her, this means that she accepted the action and it did not matter to her, so it should not be called harassment or sexual harassment. Then, we played a video produced by CARE Cambodia providing clear examples of these types of those abuses. The video outlined that even if victims keep quiet, they are still abuses because we could not read inside of the women how unconfortable they are feeling!

In Cambodian society, it is OK to make sexually explicit jokes during public events such as trainings, workshops, live comedy on TV, or even during wedding ceremonies. It is OK to make fun of women and degrade women’s dignity as they thought that people would laugh and enjoy hearing the jokes. The same participant I mentioned earlier agreed with this idea and he said if we don’t make sexually explicit jokes, the events would become boring and participants would be sleepy. What we are trying to do is to change these kind of deeply-rooted social norms and perceptions. After the workshop we got a lot of positive feedback from participants on how we ran the workshop. It was very participatory'; everyone got involved and shared their ideas and understanding and committed to bringing their knowledge and understanding back to their own organisations.

There was one women participant from a government counterpart, who normally made sexually explicit jokes during facilitating trainings and workshops as she thought it would make the event more productive and interesting sent a text to one of WaterAid staff who used to work with her in province, saying “I am grateful for WaterAid inviting me to join this important training and I just realized that the behavior that I have acted before the trainings or workshops were not appropriate”.

This was such wonderful feedback and shows how workshops and discussions can be effective and powerful ways to change people’s mind-set. We cannot change everyone but at least we have changed one role model in the community! During the training we observed that most of the participants still lack knowledge of gender and perceptions of gender, so our next plan is to organize a gender training for them during our annual partnership workshop.

am playing my part to create the world I want for my two daughters - where we as a society can create a safe place for everyone equally, where everyone is respected, and we can all live free from harm and abuse. I hope that by sharing my experience and the work I am leading in WaterAid we can work together to achieve this.  

If you would like more information about WaterAid’s safeguarding work please visit this page

If you or someone you know is impacted by the issues discussed in this article, support is available:
Counselling - Lifeline (13 11 14)
Family violence and sexual assault counselling and referral - 1800Respect  (1800 737 732)