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  • Norman Brook

No safe sport in a society that is failing to safeguard children.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a renowned South African Anglican cleric known for his opposition to the policies of apartheid. During the 1980s he played an almost unrivaled role in drawing national and international attention to the iniquities of apartheid, and in 1984 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. He later chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has continued to draw attention to a number of social justice issues over the years.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu pictured with members of the Professional Footballers Association and Coaching for Hope during a visit to Cape Town in May 2014.

In recent years, Archbishop Tutu has focused much of his time and the work of his foundations on improving the lives of children around the world, promoting their well-being and safety.

The importance of safeguarding of children who participate in sport has been highlighted in recent weeks as a result of  20 former footballers in the UK coming forward with allegations of historical child sex abuse in football.  The English Football Association has announced an internal review, an NSPCC hotline has received more than 250 calls and individual football clubs are conducting their own inquiries.

News of these disclosures of historical child sex abuse has dominated the UK press, but has also received global coverage, which is not surprising given the reach of the English Premier League. Here in South Africa, when you ask someone what football team they support, they first tell you their English team and after that which South African football team they support.

English Football, starting in the mid 1990’s, developed sound child safeguarding policies, procedures and practices. I remember delivering child protection training ,and training tutors in the delivery of child protection, prior to and after 2000 to the FA, Premier league Academies, and to community based football clubs. 2000 is a key date, as in 1999 the mission led by the UK sports councils and the NSPCC to promote and develop safeguarding of children in sport resulted in the establishment of the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) within the NSPCC. In 2000 the FA formalized a partnership with the CPSU to further develop and promote the safeguarding of children in football in England.

I would encourage you to visit the Football Association’s safeguarding pages on their website to learn about their safeguarding policies, practices and programmes.

In the UK, I would hope the work that started prior to 2000 to safeguard children in sport has created an environment where child abuse is less likely to occur and where concerns and disclosures of child abuse can be properly investigated and addressed. This work needs to continue, with disclosures of historical child abuse in sport being duly investigated, and the learning from these cases informing future practice in safeguarding in sport. As the UK Minister of Sport wrote recently “…the sport sector needs to do everything it can to ensure that if proven allegations are found there is justice for the survivors of past abuse, and that sport today is as safe as it possibly can be.”

My concern though is that whilst sport in countries in the Global North has increasingly implemented child safeguarding standards, the same is not true in the developing nations of the Global South.

I will use South Africa, a middle income country, as an example. South Africa has a modern constitution and laws that protect the rights of children. There is however no requirement for sports organizations or clubs to adopt safeguarding policies, procedures or practices. In fact, it is difficult to find examples of good practice in South African sport in terms of safeguarding children.

In the development sector where sport is used as a development tool there has been some progress. UNICEF UK has been leading with the promotion of the International Standards for Safeguarding Children in Sport and Keeping Children Safe have developed the International Child Safeguarding Standards which have been adopted by most international development organizations.


South African Football Star, Amanda Dlamini launches UNICEF UK’s International Standards for Safeguarding Children in Sport in Johannesburg 2014

The progress made in the sport for development sector is sadly not being reflected in main steam sport in developing nations.

During the apartheid years in South Africa,  Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented that “There can be no non-racial sport in a racist society”.

Adopting the same thinking, sport in South Africa cannot be free of child abuse whilst there continues to be such high levels of violence against children in South African society.

The University of Cape Town recently released South Africa’s first study on the national annual incidence of child sexual abuse in the country. Conducted by the university’s Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town, the research has revealed ground-breaking information on the extent of sexual abuse crimes committed against children and young people.

The following facts were reported by BHEKISISA the South African Health Journalism:

One in three young people report a sexually abusive experience in their lifetime. A total of 784 967 South Africans have been abused sexually at least once by the age of 17. Almost half of these cases occurred in 2015 alone.

Boys reported higher lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse (36.8%) than girls (33.9%) unlike previously thought. However, the nature of the abuse is often different. Girls are more likely to experience contact sexual abuse, where they are physically touched, and boys are more likely to experience exposure abuse, where the child is forced to see sexual images or incidents. Males are twice as likely as females to be “forced to look at someone’s private parts, forced to watch them masturbate or to view nude pictures or pornographic videos”.

Children reported higher rates of adults they know abusing them sexually (8.2%) than adults they don’t know (5.5%). Half of the young people reporting abuse by an older person they know say that the incidents happened more than once. But, 90% of those who report abuse by an adult they have never met say that the incident happened only once.

Violence against children including sexual abuse is a big problem in South African society where one in three children is likely to experience sexual abuse. In a society where there is so much violence against children it is simply not possible to imagine that there is not a problem of children participating in sport being subjected to abuse including sexual abuse. This in a society where the constitution and laws are in place to safeguard children, but where the reality is very different.

If in South Africa, sport is not as safe as it can possibly be for children, it is fair to conclude that in other countries where children’s rights are not respected, mainly medium and low development countries, that children are equally unsafe when participating in main stream sport.

I firmly believe that international and national sports federations need to do be doing much more to be promoting and implementing the International Standards for Safeguarding Children in Sport ensuring that sport today is as safe as it possibly can be for all children.

Norman Brook MBE was a Child Protection Training Tutor and Trainer of Tutors for Sportscoach UK during the 1990’s and 2000’s. He was responsible for developing and implementing Child protection policies and procedures at the British Triathlon Federation where he was the Chief Executive Officer. He served on a working group contributing to the development of UNICEF UK’s International Standards for Safeguarding Children in Sport.  Through his work on developing coaches and coaching resources for sport and development settings, Norman has ensured that all publications address the issue of safeguarding children participating in sport.

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