Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


New INSPIRE handbook for ending violence against children



It is estimated that globally up to 1 billion children aged 2-17 years are subject to physical, sexual or emotional violence each year (Hillis et al., 2016). Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO), with key partner agencies and organisations, released the INSPIRE Handbook to guide practitioners, policy-makers and advocates in putting in place interventions to prevent violence against children and young people. This handbook is relevant for all sectors, particularly education, criminal justice, health and social care, and is underpinned by seven strategies to advance efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal target 16.2 ‘to end all forms of violence against children’. These seven strategies focus on the following key areas: Implementation and enforcement of laws; Norms and values; Safe environments; Parent and caregiver support; Income and economic strengthening; Response and support services; Education and life skills.

It is encouraging to see how closely aligned these strategies, developed within an international framework, are to Contextual Safeguarding.

Like Contextual Safeguarding, the INSPIRE Handbook is informed by social ecological theory, recognising the influence of social, economic, and cultural factors on either increasing the risk of young people being subjected to violence or helping to protect them, and highlights the importance of intervening at individual, family, community and society levels. The strategies outlined in the handbook interrelate and strengthen one another within a systemic approach. Each strategy describes a number of approaches to prevent and respond to violence against children, illustrated by evidence-based policies, practices, or programmes.

Creating and sustaining safe physical and social environments

The examples of interventions shared in the handbook provide useful evidence of approaches that have been replicated in various countries. Particularly relevant to Contextual Safeguarding is the third strategy aiming to ‘Create and sustain safe physical and social environments where children and youth gather and spend time’. This strategy encompasses three evidence-based approaches, each illustrated with an evidence-based model that has been successfully replicated around the world:

  • Reducing violence by addressinghot spots’: often involving policing interventions of community-based prevention
  • Interrupting the spread of violence: changing norms and reduce the influence of social environments on violence behaviour
  • Improving the built environment: increasing community safety through environmental planning, design, and infrastructure. One example is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a multidisciplinary approach that aims to manage public spaces in ways that deter criminal behaviour.

Example of model: The Cardiff Model: violence prevention approach combining anonymous data from hospital emergency departments (EDs) with police reports of violence incidents used to locate ‘hotspots’.

Example of model: Cure Violence: conflict prevention and mediation programme to detect and disrupt community violence.

Example of model: Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU): community-based programme to co-create safe and sustainable neighbourhoods and improve quality of life through urban design, safety promotion, and socioeconomic programmes.

The Handbook also emphasises the importance of ensuring safe environments within schools, including physical spaces of schools and school surroundings through lighting, visibility, landscaping, recreational space, transportation, supervision, and safe separate sanitation facilities for boys and girls. Schools are prompted to identify what is taking place – at the system level and within individual schools – to prevent violence and promote safe and enabling environments and critically reflect on the values, norms (and perhaps unconscious biases) shaping the school culture and dynamics between students, teachers, parents and the community.

A model shared under this approach is The Safe and Enabling Environment in Schools programme: a whole-school approach to ending peer bullying school students, aged 11 – 19 years. The programme consists of a community-level campaign to raise awareness of physical and verbal violence, and a school-based intervention based on incremental steps. Originally developed by UNICEF in Croatia, is has been replicated across Central and Eastern Europe. The step-by-step approach detailed in the Programme Handbook may prompt ideas for addressing other forms of violence in schools, such as sexual violence or sexual harassment.

Key enablers of systemic change

The handbook draws out key principles that make approaches to create safe environments more likely to be impactful:

  • Comprehensive assessment to identify opportunities for interventions in the community
  • Strong partnerships and mechanism for interactions between agencies, services, the private sector and communities
  • Community ownership and participation, including by children and youth, in planning processes

These same approaches lie at the heart of Contextual Safeguarding and inform the contextual interventions that we are developing in the London borough of Hackney. Identifying, assessing and intervening in the contexts in which abuse takes place and developing partnerships across a range of sectors and individuals who influence these contexts form two of the four foundational ‘domains’ of a Contextual Safeguarding system (Firmin, 2017).

Collaborating with young people, parents, carers and a range of community actors to shape these interventions is crucial. In our Hackney project, for instance, students and parents have contributed to a Whole-School Contextual Assessment to create a safer school environment, and are we are now exploring challenges and opportunities around safeguarding young people in one of Hackney’s neighbourhoods with the aim of co-creating a community plan through community engagement. Network members have also shared examples of contextual interventions that were co-designed with young people: in one example, young people revamped an organisation’ risk assessments. In another example, a group of young people helped to make a shopping center a safer environment.

Linking approaches to creating safe environments with the other six strategic areas outlined, the INSPIRE Handbook stresses the importance of system-wide considerations, for example: legislation in place to promote safety of public spaces, access to community resources and support, child-friendly environments (such as clinics or police stations). Similarly, the social work interventions models that we are piloting in Hackney are informed by a series of interventions models from a range of sectors, including detached youth work, social pedagogy, community psychology, bystander interventions and restorative justice.

As we know in the UK, cross-sector collaboration is not without its challenges. Thinking about system-wide approaches to prevent and respond to violence against young people from an international perspective helps us appreciate the difficulty of implementing contextual approaches in settings of crisis, such as conflict, post-conflict or other humanitarian settings, or in settings where forms of violence against young people may be normalised, including by those who experience, witness and/or perpetrate it (instructionally and/or at community level). The use of violent punishment or physical violence by parents, caregivers, teachers and other authority figures, for instance, is pervasive in numerous countries, as reflected by the first strategic area outlined in the INSPIRE Handbook in regards to the implementation and enforcement of laws.

Extra-familial settings of abuse: peer relationships and online spaces

The INSPIRE Handbook, furthermore, seeks to address forms of peer on peer abuse (termed as ‘peer violence’) in young people’s relationships. Interventions to address violent behaviour among peer groups, promote healthy relationships and peer support networks are integrated in the strategies. The reduction of ‘peer violence’ - namely ‘bullying and victimization’ - forms one of the core indicators developed by the INSPIRE partnership to monitor the implementation of INSPIRE strategies across various settings. The reduction of ‘psychical and/or sexual violence against young people by a romantic partner’ also features as an indicator.

It is also promising to see that online exposure to violence and exploitation is recognised as an emerging concern, prompting the inclusion of specific indicators capturing online interactions of young people with unknown persons and face-to-face meeting with persons met online under the Safer Environment Strategy. These considerations align with the Contextual Safeguarding approach of looking at online spaces as one of the extra-familial contexts in which abuse can take place, although the authors of the handbook acknowledge more evidence is needed on interventions targeting online environments. Whilst cyber-bullying is recognised as a form of peer online abuse, the Handbook does not mention online peer sexual abuse – an issue that is increasingly recognised here in the UK (see for example Farrer & Co Toolkit, 2017 or NSPCC, 2018).

The INSPIRE Handbook, overall, is a positive step towards fostering cross-sector collaborations to address violence against children, and provides useful guidance on how to choose and tailor interventions to specific contexts. It’s always interesting to learn from how contextual approaches are implemented and what makes them successful in a range of settings. Some of the programmes and interventions outlined in the INSPIRE Handbook may be familiar to you or similar to those implemented in the UK while others developed in very specific contexts (such as in conflict settings, where violence is routinised) may spark some new ideas to address violence and abuse in our own contexts. What is certainly encouraging is the recognition of extra-familial risk and the emphasis placed on addressing physical, social and online environments within a broader systemic approach.


Farrer & Co (2017) Peer-on-peer abuse toolkit.

Firmin, C. (2017) Contextual Safeguarding: An overview of the operational, strategic and conceptual framework.

Hillis, S., Mercy, J., Amobi, A. and Kress, H. (2016) ‘Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: a systematic review and minimum estimates’. Pediatrics, 137(3). doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-4079

NSPCC (2018) “Is this sexual abuse?”: NSPCC helplines report about peer sexual abuse. London: NSPCC.

WHO (2018) INSPIRE Handbook: action for implementing the seven strategies for ending violence against children.

Image taken from the INSPIRE Handbook.

Posted: 25 Jul 2018

Author: Delphine Peace

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