<- Overview

Safety considerations

In face-to-face training participants benefit from anonymity and safety and are free from their families and communities’ involvement in their educational process. Meeting young people outside and away from their immediate communities and families is often key to implementing training and educating on the more divisive and personal topics included in comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). However, during the global pandemic, online activities increased and became the primary (or exclusive!) way to discuss, train, inform and create knowledge on all topics, including CSE. The shift to digital platforms brought new challenges for organisations: the adaptation of the training and teaching in an online setting, unequal and often low-quality access to the internet and safety concerns that were not as pervasive, divisive or cumbersome as with in-person learning spaces

The challenge of maintaining safety in digital CSE spaces for both participants and educators, including both staff and volunteers, is of utmost importance. Without safety, participation plummets, participants are unwilling or unable to engage and educators may be at risk. Some examples of ways that safety may be violated include photographing or screenshotting either participants or educators, additional people being present, but unseen by the camera (either because it is off or because they are outside of its scope) or a family member walking into a room and hearing content that they disagree with or generally find offensive. All of these things violate participants’ (and educators’) anonymity, security and integrity, potentially putting members of the CSE learning community at risk.

However, there are ways to address these issues and create a safer, more trauma informed space for online CSE learning.

Within the learning space itself

Online CSE groups and activities must come with group agreements or ground rules to ensure a safe space. Here are a few examples of ways to achieve this goal:

  • Acceptance: Some participants will feel more comfortable expressing themselves on digital platforms – which is great! However, others feel more comfortable in person and will hesitate to engage digitally. Given the dynamics of the digital space, you may not even be able to see the quieter participants or even have any idea that they are present. Some ways to increase participants’ feelings of acceptance include emphasising that there is no such thing as a wrong question, that you want to know and support each of them, even the ones you don’t see or know and that your space is open to everyone.
  • Inclusivity: Foremost, a digital CSE learning environment must expressly acknowledge all races, identities, religions and sexualities. Because personal connections like eye contact and body language are so much more difficult to express and interpret, even via synchronous video platforms, participants are less likely to receive these messages and thus feel included without overt discussion. Any discriminatory behaviour, including by other participants in the space, must not be tolerated. Interrupting this behaviour can be difficult, even in an in-person setting, and staff and volunteers are often even less sure of themselves on how to do it digitally. In order to address this difficulty, create organisational guidelines on how, for example, to handle a bigoted comment on a social media platform or on what grounds to kick out a participant out of a synchronous video platform and then making sure everyone, including the participants, is trained in and aware of these guidelines.
  • Introductions: The first step to creating a safe space is being aware of the people we are with. Always begin with a round of introductions before each session with questions like “What is your name? Do you want to share your pronouns, ethnicity or any other element of your identity? What is it that we need to take into consideration for you to feel safe?” Even with an established group who knows each other, it is important to recognise who is in the space and who may be absent.
  • Mandatory Reporting: Laws around what is necessary to report, and to whom, vary dramatically on region. Be sure to know your local laws and be sure that participants know the laws as well. If you are required to make a report if they tell you they are being harmed, they need to have full knowledge of that fact before they tell you any personal details. There are many reasons why participants may choose not to disclose harm or abuse. Let them know that you can talk about theoretical situations of harm without being required to make a report. Most young people are able to make this cognitive leap by around age 12 or 13. Note that this process may be different for online vs. in-person disclosures.
  • Privacy and Access: Having access to a safe space at home to attend and discuss topics around SRHR is necessary for participants to engage. While it is not possible for organisations to ensure that all young people interested in accessing their materials or learning environments have access to this, they can offer their services at a range of times, on a variety of platforms and through both spoken and written formats. This will provide potential participants with as many different access points as possible.
  • Support: Because of the sensitive nature of SRHR topics, participants may need additional mental health support – or other kinds of practical support – that is beyond the scope of what a CSE learning space is designed to provide. Always have local or regional digital and in-person resources on hand to provide to participants. Necessary topics will vary depending on the ages of your participants, but may include housing, suicide prevention, counsellors, female genital mutilation, child abuse, abortion access, contraception access, STI testing and treatment, sexual assault reporting, and more. At the beginning of CSE programmes, always highlight that supporting programs are available if a young person is grappling with topics outside the scope of what the program is designed to provide.
  • Technological Support: Particularly in a synchronous setting, the person facilitating activities will struggle if they are also expected to run the technology associated with those activities. Having another person to do those details will allow the facilitator to engage more deeply, more thoughtfully and in more trauma informed ways than if they were trying to do both at the same time. If the group is particularly large, it is beneficial to have a third person on hand to step in if there are problematic statements or breaches of group agreements.

Utilizing these approaches to digital CSE learning spaces dramatically increases the safety of those spaces. However, it is impossible to guarantee complete safety in a digital space, much as it is impossible to guarantee safety in an in-person space. There are potential risks associated with each platform. Reducing risks and then weighing the remaining risk against the potential benefit is a necessary piece of consideration for organisations, staff, volunteers and participants alike.