What do we mean by safeguarding against SEAH?

Safeguarding broadly means preventing harm to people – and the environment – in the delivery of development and humanitarian assistance.

It is well known that aid programmes can result in unintended negative consequences to local populations. SEAH, in particular, is widely recognised and documented. The vast majority of staff and associates of aid agencies are highly committed and principled but there is always a risk that some may engage in misconduct that harms local populations, especially vulnerable groups. Similarly, staff and associates may themselves experience harm in the workplace at the hands of their colleagues.

The Resource and Support Hub has been deliberately designed to focus on preventing and responding to SEAH as these acts constitute some of the most grave violations of those who may be most vulnerable/at risk. Rigorous safeguarding policies and practices will also serve to strengthen public confidence in the sector, and ensure the continuation of support that exists for international aid and development.


For the purposes of the Hub safeguarding means taking all reasonable steps to prevent SEAH from occurring; to protect people, especially vulnerable adults and children, from that harm; and to respond appropriately when harm does occur.[1]
The Hub uses the following international definitions for related concepts, particularly those of the UN:

SEA is defined as:

  • Sexual Exploitation: Any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes. Includes profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from sexual exploitation of another. Under UN regulations it includes transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex and exploitative relationship.[2] 
  • Sexual Abuse: The actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. It includes sexual assault (attempted rape, kissing / touching, forcing someone to perform oral sex / touching) as well as rape. Under UN regulations, all sexual activity with someone under the age of 18 is considered to be sexual abuse, regardless of the age of majority or consent locally. Mistaken belief in the age of a child is not a defence.[3]
  • Sexual Harassment: A continuum of unacceptable and unwelcome behaviours and practices of a sexual nature that may include, but are not limited to, sexual suggestions or demands, requests for sexual favours and sexual, verbal or physical conduct or gestures, that are or might reasonably be perceived as offensive or humiliating.[4]

SEA is a breach of the provisions of the UN Secretary General’s Bulletin (Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse), and is “Conduct or behaviour of a sexual nature when this conduct or behaviour amounts to either sexual exploitation or sexual abuse as defined in ST/SGB/2003/13”.[5]

Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) is the term used by the UN and NGO community to refer to measures taken to protect people from sexual exploitation and abuse by their own staff and associated personnel.[6]

Many aid organisations now talk about tackling SEAH as opposed to SEA, clearly adding harassment as a related issue. This arises from increasing recognition that sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment have common structural roots in inequality. Safeguarding violations can take different forms – sexual, physical, emotional, economic and verbal abuse, for example. Although these issues have been tackled separately to some extent, all are safeguarding issues and have at their root the underlying problems of power differences, inequality – especially gender inequality – bias, privilege and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, economic and other aspects of status and identity.

A whole organisation approach, which addresses organisational culture, is required when tackling these underlying problems in a nuanced way and ensuring that robust safeguarding policies and practices are implemented. This needs strong leadership with an emphasis on respect, dignity and inclusiveness. We hope the materials on the site will be useful in tackling SEAH and wider safeguarding issues, preventing all forms of harm through safe environments across aid and development agencies.

[1] RSH working definition of safeguarding
[2] United Nations (2017) Glossary on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Second Edition.
[3] Ibid.
[4] United Nations (2018) Intensification of efforts to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls: sexual harassment (A/RES/73/148). UN General Assembly Resolution.
[5] UN, 2017

Different methods were used to gather this information, primarily a desk review supplemented with a small number of Key Informant Interviews. COVID-19 disrupted our efforts to gather primary user engagement data through focus group discussions around the country, and had to be replaced by secondary data from existing civil society programming. This means we have limited knowledge concerning the priority safeguarding gaps and needs of CSOs. We intend to supplement this with further data collection and continuing user engagement and feedback.

Overview of the safeguarding context in Ethiopia

The RSH Ethiopia Hub: starting our journey

Before drawing up a workplan for the RSH Ethiopia Hub, the team embarked on an exercise to gather materials and information about the existing safeguarding context that would directly inform the design of the Hub. Information about Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the aid sector in Ethiopia would allow us to better target our resources and activities, complement existing initiatives, and find the right partners with whom to collaborate in this endeavour.

The assessment set out to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the national context – legal, policy, practice and culture – within which the Ethiopia Hub will be operating?
  2. What SEAH/ safeguarding resources exist in Ethiopia that can be more widely shared – support services, tools and guidance, evidence, expertise and capacity development opportunities?
  3. What SEAH/ safeguarding related activities, actors and networks or opportunities are there in Ethiopia on which the Hub should build?
  4. What are the priority gaps and needs with regards to SEAH and safeguarding in Ethiopia, in particular amongst CSOs?
  5. How do people/ organisations in the aid sector access information, and what does the digital landscape look like? What are the opportunities and constraints in Ethiopia that need to be factored into the design of the national Hub?

Different methods were used to gather this information, primarily a desk review supplemented with a small number of Key Informant Interviews. COVID-19 disrupted our efforts to gather primary user engagement data through focus group discussions around the country, and had to be replaced by secondary data from existing civil society programming. This means we have limited knowledge concerning the priority safeguarding gaps and needs of CSOs. We intend to supplement this with further data collection and continuing user engagement and feedback.

Our efforts to identify publicly accessible tools, resources, research and materials focused on safeguarding in Ethiopia were largely unsuccessful. There is very little in the public domain, and very little data (e.g. about prevalence, responses, etc) on which to build. As such, we recognise that the summary of our findings presented here paints a very incomplete picture.

The national safeguarding/SEAH context

Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) is a form of gender-based violence. Although Ethiopia has ratified and domesticated many of the international and regional conventions on child rights and protection of adults, there is no single consolidated law on gender based violence or violence against women and girls. The various institutions established by the Ethiopian government to protect children and women are often under-funded, partially implemented and not yet widely effective. Despite provisions within the criminal law, early marriage and other harmful traditional practices such as FGM are widespread. The criminalisation of adultery and homosexuality creates significant risk on organisations’ ability to safeguard staff

With regards to labour law, until recently sexual harassment was not recognised in local legal instruments, and there remain a number of significant loopholes to date. The CEDAW committee has drawn attention to pervasive prejudice, discrimination and sexual harassment against women in the workforce. There is no requirement in Ethiopia for any employer or institution to report on sexual exploitation, abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace, making it extremely difficult to assess the extent of such misconduct or indeed the current state of response. Given the lack of information more widely, it is impossible to find any evidence on SEAH against particular at risk groups, such as people with disabilities.

In addition to inadequacies in the legal framework, social norms and attitudes are also critical drivers of violence, including SEAH. Patriarchal norms, gender inequality and discrimination against certain groups underpin sexual violence, corporal punishment and the trivialisation or normalisation of such practices. This creates an environment where SEAH is widely tolerated at a societal level, amongst community members and even within aid organisations.

SEAH resources

There are no multi-agency national reporting, referral systems or support on GBV, including SEAH. During the scoping exercise, we were unable to identify any published information about referral pathways such as sometimes exist in other country contexts. The availability and quality of medical, psychosocial and legal services for survivors of violence varies across the country. Legal aid services are fragmented, mental health and psychosocial support are rarely available from specialist providers, and shelters are extremely limited.

This lack of resources is compounded by a lack of research or documentation concerning the availability, capacity and the different types of safeguarding initiatives in different organizations. For example, there is no evidence concerning the effectiveness of the various hotline initiatives established by organisations that exist, and other community complaints mechanisms. Nor are there documented studies on the scale of SEAH, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are, and the factors that mitigate or facilitate SEAH in the aid sector in Ethiopia.

The weakening and fragmentation of the civil society sector as a result of the restrictive legislation (recently repealed) has affected the way in which the aid sector engages with such issues. Most organisations have their own separate policies, guidelines and reporting/referral procedures. These are rarely available to use outside of the organization. The government agency responsible for overseeing civil society organizations does not appear to have a specific mandate with regards to monitoring SEAH. However, there is significant interest across the civil society sector in the development of a broad code of conduct, a possible entry-point for integrating SEAH standards.

SEAH stakeholders, initiatives, networks and service providers

The SEAH/ safeguarding discussion is led by a relatively small number of key stakeholders in Ethiopia. Within the international community, the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) network is leading the way on joined up approaches to combating SEA, and is actively pursuing a range of projects and initiatives. This network has a humanitarian emphasis. Various government agencies have a role to play but are less visible at civil society level. Amongst civil society, it is perhaps the Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP2) that has done most in this regard, training over 120 CSOS in basic safeguarding approaches over the last two years. Nevertheless, data suggests that even amongst these organisations, monitoring and learning around safeguarding remains low.

Previous examples of training initiatives appear to have left little trace and certainly no national cohort of established SEA investigators or trainers. One or two individual CSO’s are playing a key role in providing training to others on a call-down basis, but such initiatives are relatively rare. Most interventions appear to be donor driven and are organization specific, although there is some collaboration between donors/ lead NGOs and grantees. However, overall our scoping noted a lack of institutional memory and a tendency towards non-transparency.

Efforts to identify safeguarding service providers offering expert advice to aid organisations in Ethiopia found only a small number of individuals and organizations who are able to offer such a service. These are currently undergoing assessment and will be signposted on the Hub in due course. The lack of a major cohort of individuals or organizations clearly illustrates a significant gap in the safeguarding architecture within Ethiopia. It is a legacy of the fragmented approach to capacity development in this area for the last 10 years

CSO capacity gaps and needs

Although we were unable to collect primary data concerning CSO safeguarding capacity levels, CSO self-assessment data from one grants programme gave us a snapshot of potential priorities (albeit not necessarily representative of Ethiopian CSOs in general). Amongst this cohort, just over half have basic safeguarding policies in place. When it comes to awareness and knowledge on safeguarding, 41% of the CSOs reported having a training/induction process in place. The biggest gap is in terms of monitoring and learning on safeguarding: the vast majority of these CSOs rated their capacity in this regards as low or basic. None of the CSOs felt that they had a high level of capacity on monitoring.

This fairly mixed set of profiles suggests there is an opportunity for RSH to develop and share materials from the basic level up to more comprehensive level, in an attempt to ensure those who are very low capacity are not left behind. We will continue to seek more evidence to help inform our development of the Ethiopian Hub.

Digital landscape

A scan of the digital and technology landscape in Ethiopia was also included in order to inform our hub profile. The challenge of accessing internet in many parts of Ethiopia, the low bandwidth and widespread use of phones to access information all point to a need for a mixed approach to capacity building in Ethiopia in order to expand reach and ensure as wide a user group as possible with reasonable access. The existing data underlines the importance of simplicity and accessibility. Social networking sites such as Facebook or Telegram are evidently also an important channel for enabling discussion groups

Download the Ethiopia Country Assessment

To download and read the full report on the Ethiopia Country Assessment in English, please click here. You will find an overview of safeguarding in Ethiopia, the key activities and actors as well as an assessment of priority gaps and needs.

Your feedback will be welcome!


Safeguarding Essentials