What is protection anyway?

Rachel Hastie Conflict, Disasters, Humanitarian


If you work for a humanitarian agency then protection, helping people to stay safe in conflicts and disasters, is a core part of your duty of care. Our new materials will help you to understand how everything you do has the potential to reduce or increase the risks people face, as Rachel Hastie, Protection Adviser, explains.

The question I get asked more than any other is ‘what is protection?’ It’s never a quick and simple one to answer. I do sometimes wonder, however, if it matters what I think protection is – surely what is more important is what the people in need of protection think it looks and feels like in their lives. People like Josephine who was abducted by a brutal armed group, and Monica who lost her children whilst fleeing an attack, both of whom feature in a new communications package on protection created by Oxfam with the Global Protection Cluster and funding from ECHO .

everything you do has the potential to reduce the risks people face…We have changed their names and some details about their lives, but these are all real people we have met in our humanitarian working – people living with violence and abuse on a daily basis and those whom we, the aid workers, are meant to serve. Protection is fundamentally about people like them being safe from the harm that others might do them.

All humanitarians play a role in protection, but we know that some are unsure what it means for them. In fact, if you are an aid worker, then you’re already having an impact on protection, even if you’re not aware of it – everything you do has the potential to reduce the risks people face or make the situation worse for them.

So, what should people like Monica and Josephine expect from humanitarians? At the very least they should be able to access humanitarian assistance without it putting them in greater danger. What does that mean practically? It could be working out what times of day are most dangerous for people to be out on the roads, and making sure any aid distributions happen early enough that people can get home safely. It might be about building latrines or washing areas with bamboo instead of plastic sheeting which is known to attract looters who may also assault women using those facilities.

We must also take steps to ensure they are not exposed to further threats by persuading those who should be protecting them to do so – often through negotiation or advocacy on their behalf. This might be about persuading a peacekeeping mission to patrol on a road that is particularly dangerous on market days, so that people can get there and back safely.

We should also help people like Monica find her missing children by linking her up to family tracing services and help Josephine get urgent medical care and other support to help her deal with what has happened to her.

We should also be pulling together all the information we have about what is happening and making sure that the authorities that should be protecting understand the situation and are taking action to protect people, from a local police officer, to the head of the army, to the UN-led coordination groups that many humanitarians take part in, and senior international political leaders and diplomats.

Monica, Josephine and others like them, that we meet in our everyday work around the world – should know that there is a whole system and structure working on their behalf to improve their situation and make them safer. So, whether you are a protection specialist or not, protection is part of your job too.

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Photo: Josephine (not her real name), Northern DRC, September 2010. Credit: Pierre Peron/Oxfam

Author: Rachel Hastie
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.