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We have the opportunity to advance safeguarding and break cycles of abuse within churches and ministries today, says Esther John of AsiaCMS

“Safeguarding is an expression of the Father heart of God, and a mandate entrusted upon all of us [as believers],” says Esther John, the safeguarding manager at AsiaCMS. 

Esther, who hails from Sri Lanka, is a mental health and psychosocial practitioner. Her work in safeguarding began with a faith-based organisation where she worked with child survivors of abuse in Sri Lanka.

Since 2021, she has been with AsiaCMS, a trans-denominational missions movement based in Kuala Lumpur, she has observed that safeguarding is a fairly new concept to churches and ministries alike. 

What is safeguarding?

Safeguarding is a fairly new concept to churches and ministries in Asia. It is a broad term for approaches, efforts and initiatives aimed at keeping all children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse, harm, violence and exploitation. 

Esther John, Asia CMS Safeguarding Manager

Esther, who started off supporting the development of internal safeguarding policies, soon realised that it was unfamiliar territory to many. 

“There’s not much use pushing people to have a policy just for the sake of it, so we have been focusing now on training and capacity building. To look beyond the system and towards something more practical,” she explained. 

At times, that may mean starting from ground zero: training and awareness. 

Safeguarding is biblical 

According to Esther, safeguarding children and vulnerable adults is an expression of the Father heart of God.

A Biblical example she provides is found in the story of Hagar (vulnerable, slave woman, kicked out of the house, single mother) and Ishmael (infant, single parent home, lack of access to basic needs). 

“God saw and heard their cries in the desert; that shows the father’s heart of God who heard the cry of a vulnerable woman and child. That is the same mandate God has given us,” Esther said. 

Another example is the two Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh’s law (Exodus 1), taking great risks to safeguard the lives of male babies, thus preventing them from being killed at birth. 

The two midwives took a stand to safeguard, and later we see that God honoured their stand and blessed them (verses 20 and 21). 

Breaking the stigma and shame on difficult topics 

In the Asian context, Esther opines, people often don’t want to talk about safeguarding because it tackles heavy topics such as abuse and violence.

“There’s the stigma and shame, and it can be a real discomfort, especially in churches and mission organisations. Gen Zers are much more open now to talk about some of these previously taboo topics,” she said, adding that this presents a great opportunity for progress.

It is harder to break the stigma when there is a strong sense of denial about safeguarding-related issues, especially with regards to the child.

“Yet another challenge is a lack of understanding or awareness, especially when culture has normalised certain issues — child labour, for example,” she said. 

Safeguarding tackles heavy topics such as violence and abuse.

Abuse can happen in many forms

The lack of awareness and understanding can also cause confusion because there is a thin line between discipline and abuse, Esther goes on to say. “If words are demeaning, that’s abuse. If an action harms a child, that’s abuse,” she stated. 

Types of abuse include: 

  • Physical abuse: Hitting/causing any sort of physical harm/physical violence 
  • Emotional abuse: crushing one’s self-esteem/self-worth through words or actions
  • Sexual abuse: inappropriate touching, coercing others to perform sexual acts, showing or displaying explicit material 
  • Neglect: when one has the resources to provide their child with basic needs but does not. This includes refraining from caring for a sick child or leaving a child alone in dangerous places. 
  • Commercial exploitation: abuse that happens with a commercial benefit such as trafficking or child labour.

“It is very important to be aware of the impact of your actions,” Esther said. 

“For example, someone may come up to you and say, “I’ll support that child’s education!” and with a good heart, you connect them to the family and provide personal details of the child without conducting a proper background check. That could be a potentially dangerous situation, and you may have unknowingly played a part.”

Christian organisations and mission organisations must therefore be aware of what’s happening around them and stay abreast of social issues facing the vulnerable in their communities. 

How can we carry out safeguarding practices well?

The most important thing, Esther maintains, is to create a safeguarding culture that adopts a survivor-centric approach, not a “protect the reputation of the church/organisation” attitude.

If everyone knows they have a role to play, churches and mission organisations can become safe environments for all. Other steps to take include:

Develop a context-appropriate code of conduct. This document entails the do’s and don’ts when dealing with children and vulnerable adults, and should be signed by everyone within your organisation. For churches, all who work with children and vulnerable persons (e.g. children’s church, youth ministry, shelter ministries) should sign the document. 

Appoint a safeguarding point person to manage a safe reporting channel. A point person is responsible for ensuring the advancement of safeguarding in your organisation or church by building awareness, overseeing a safe reporting channel for victims and facilitating appropriate interventions where necessary. 

Build a comprehensive safeguarding policy. For larger organisations and churches, a safeguarding policy can be an effective preventive measure, alongside a transparent and accountable reporting system.

AsiaCMS is a trans-denominational missions movement that seeks to enlarge the sphere of missions, support workers in the field and foster collaboration between people, organisations and churches to meet real needs. 

If you would like to explore building a safeguarding culture within your church, missions organisation or ministry or require specific training on the topic, contact AsiaCMS at safeguarding.manager@asiacms.net.

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