Khoula Harbaoui: “Child Protection is hard work”

In Tunisia, a team of young volunteers, psychologists, sociologists and physical health teachers have changed the pedagogical perception on working with at-risk youth and kids, as a means to empower said youth and kids and harness their frustrations to channel them into positivity.

Khoula Harbaoui graduated as a teacher in Physical Education and Activities in 2010. She has been part of the Cross Cultures volunteer coaches since 2014, and as a multidisciplinary coach, she became a teacher at the Institute of Physical Education at the Centre of Defence and Social Integration in 2016. Finally, she was appointed national coordinator of the Child Safeguarding in Sport in 2019. A programme which is originally taught on the Basic Level of our Youth Leadership Education, and has later become a national initiative in Tunisia, in an attempt to help vulnerable children and NEET-youth in sport. The initiative adapted to all aspects of association-life – from sexual harassment and abuse as well as domestic and gender-based violence (GBV). Khoula’s involvement is a success story within Cross Cultures, and she is currently hired through the Ministry of Youth and Sport (MOYS) working with the Fédération Tunesienne des Sport Pour Tous (FTSPT).

Her work primarily involves youth aged 10-15, with an expertise in young school drop-outs, youth and children who are socially marginalized, threatened by delinquency, in conflict with the law and/ or youth and kids who have been flagged by the delegation of the Child Protection due to domestic violence, neglect or abuse. She uses physical activity in her work with youth and kids, as a way to teach them about gender equality, bodily awareness, a healthy lifestyle and basic life skills. Furthermore, physical activities and fun games is a means to harness negative energy from the children and influence them positively.

The Child safeguarding-initiative, in combination with the appliance of the UN Child Rights Convention, offers a splendid child-friendly environment, fighting against the temptations of the streets involving a) families of the youth and kids as a way to teach parents in rural (and urban) areas about gender equality, thus pushing for girls-participation as well as support for parents helping them with how to cope with the psychological, moral and material care of children. b) Education is put to the fore, and school NEET youth and kids are helped with basic schooling, with the ambition to lead them back to school and away from the streets and a life of crime. Thus, the initiative and involved personnel does not discriminate between students and non-students, while they raise awareness and apply the child rights convention with a certain level of embodiment through physical education. Consequently, this has reduced the number of school drop-outs among youth and children. C) Lastly, society at large and rural communities are a target.

“Child Protection is hard work”

Khoula Harbaoui

Within the Child Safeguarding-initiative, security and protection measures have been established towards at-risk youth and children. Especially street kids who have been reached with the help of local police authorities. The dissemination of the initiatives has helped reinforce the role of sports and cultural associations, as well as reinforce the societal involvement of associations and youth. Most importantly, within the framework of these initiatives, the Child Safeguarding personnel and Khoula helped raise awareness, thus preventing any type of violence and sexual abuse. This goes for the racism of any kind as well. However, as the initiative is not an official governmental project yet, the personnel have no right to intervene in abusive families’ lives. This is something the Ministry of Social Affairs and Child Protective Services takes care of. Instead, Khoula and her team are alerting the Child Protective Services, the moment they find evidence of any kind of abuse in child homes.

Going from technical sessions of physical activity, of course focussing on bodily and mental wellbeing, Khoula and her colleagues had not considered the socioeconomic backgrounds of the children a factor in their current behavioural patterns. Not until Khoula was presented with the dossier of a kid, troubled by a home filled with abuse and violence, did she and her team understand that they had to change not only their perception of how they interact with the children but how the children are perceived and interpellated as well.

“My reaction to him being violent and aggressive towards his peers, not paying attention and even being aggressive towards me, was to ban him from all sorts of play and participation. How could I not? He had to learn it. Surprisingly, it had to the opposite effect, and he became even more aggressive, which was not my intention.” – Khoula Harbaoui

By calling out the boy on his behaviour and thereby punishing him, she is emphasizing that he is in a certain way towards him. Interpellating the boy as violent and aggressive instead of trying to bond with him forces him to internalize the culture of behaviour in which he is held. Thus, denying the boy access only makes him more frustrated because that is how it’s interpellated by everyone else. However, getting back to Khoula’s meeting with her colleagues, they started consulting with psychologists and sociologists preparing a scheme on how to work with children like said boy. Instead of denying them, they would start to grant access to these violent and aggressive kids again and slowly incubate them in the games and activities, although now they were working with a long-term objective; to revert their negative energy to a positive attitude through empowerment.

“He took up Tae Kwondo and was drafted for the Tunisian National Team in 2018. Today he is a role model for several children, helping them to stay off the streets and get back to school through the medium of sport for a change.

Khoula and her colleagues slowly gave the boy, and other children in different groups, small tasks, and responsibilities to entitle them to a sense of commitment, responsibility and hope to make them feel heard and respected as opposed to their situation at home. The success was immediate, and the boy quickly fell into the group. After some time, he became calm, focussed, and responsible through different tasks – suddenly he was a respected group leader with a positive attitude. He took up Tae Kwondo and was drafted for the Tunisian National Team in 2018. Today he is a role model for several children, helping them to stay off the streets and get back to school through the medium of sport for a change.

“Child Protection is hard work”, Khoula adds, “It’s difficult and hard when facing a socially marginalized community, where the temptations of the streets and perversions are many and solutions or role-models few.”

In April 2019 the Child Safeguarding in Sport initiative was launched in the Centre of Defence and Social Integration, and as Khoula’s team worked differently with children she wanted her colleagues (CCPA-coaches) to change their way of working with them too. After the Basic Level seminars, they adapted a concept on top of the Child Safeguarding initiative called “Protective Coach” and “La Charte” (Cross Cultures Child Safeguarding in Sports Guidelines). It’s a document that has been the culmination of the efforts of all coaches in Tunisia, and their interaction with children. A Chart is a moral contract between the coach and child, which have been signed by 245 Tunisian Cross Cultures coaches, and lately, 58 new coaches from Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco in a recent regional seminar have signed it. This is a document that contract which Cross Cultures have incorporated in all activities and disbursed nationwide in all countries of intervention to assure maximum compliance with our safeguarding initiatives. Furthermore, it is monitored through reoccurring follow-up surveys and physical check-ups in the field.

Thanks to Khoula and her team, Child Safeguarding has become one of Cross Cultures specialities.