Safeguarding - 30 March 2023

Interview with Dona Houansou - the first National Ombudsperson for SOS Children's Villages in Africa

Dona Houansou has a unique position at SOS Children’s Villages. Based in Benin, she is the first National Ombudsperson for SOS Children's Villages on the African continent. To strengthen safeguarding and support people affected by abuse and neglect in its programmes, SOS Children’s Villages is creating a worldwide ombuds system on a global, regional and national level. In this interview, Ms. Houansou talks about her new role as an independent voice for the rights of SOS Children’s Villages’ programme participants in Benin.

Ombuds Office for SOS Children's Villages

Can you explain your role as Ombuds for SOS Children’s Villages in Benin?

I am a designated, independent, neutral and impartial conflict resolution practitioner. I provide confidential and informal assistance to children, young people and staff on a variety of issues. I respond to concerns that the safeguarding team has not been able to resolve to the satisfaction of the child, young person or adult involved.

I build trust to assist children and young people with their concerns. I listen, participate in strategic thinking, help plan or propose solutions.

I ensure that my work does not duplicate the safeguarding system.

How does it work exactly if a child has a complaint?

If a child makes an inquiry, as we call it, there are several steps I go through. First, I check whether the safeguarding team is aware of the concern and any possible risks to children.

If the safeguarding team is aware of the issue but the child still feels unsafe or the situation is not resolved in the way the child would like it, then I can get involved. The support of the Ombuds Office depends on the nature of the inquiry.


Could you give a hypothetical example of a case where you would get involved?

Children and young people can contact me with safeguarding-related reports. It could be a report of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. If the reporter does not feel satisfied with the safeguarding mechanism, my office is where they can be heard and receive help.


How do the children know that they can seek your support?

Children and young people were part of the development of the Ombuds project. They know the system thanks to training sessions and communication tools that are disseminated everywhere in the programs. They know my email address, phone number and when I will be visiting their villages and programs.

Children and young people know that they can reach out to me when they have already contacted the safeguarding team and were not satisfied with the outcome. Children and young people can also go to the Ombuds Office if they need support, coaching or information.


Why is it important for SOS Children’s Villages in Benin to have an Ombuds?

It’s important to offer an added voice that can represent children and young people. My role is included in SOS Children’s Villages Safeguarding Action Plan. Having an Ombuds Office will help reassure all stakeholders, especially children, that their safety and well-being are a priority.

My work is aimed at improving safeguarding and is based on four basic principles: independence, confidentiality, informality and impartiality. My goal is to offer solutions to situations that remain unresolved for children and young people.


Do children and young people have a say in what you do?

Yes, children and young people are at the centre of the Ombuds Office. They played a crucial role in developing the concept of the Ombuds Office right from the start.

Three hundred and fifty children and young people around the world participated in an extensive consultation and shared their views on the qualifications and qualities that an Ombuds should have. They also took part in my recruitment. Being interviewed by children and young people was a new experience to me and it really showed me how they are at the heart of this Office. They are also contributing to the dissemination and the evaluation of the Ombuds system.


Is cooperating or informing local authorities or law enforcement about alleged abuse part of your job?

It is very important that I know the local laws and SOS Children’s Village’s child safeguarding policies and regulations. If a law has been broken, then the matter needs to be reported to the local authorities as defined by SOS Children’s Villages' policy. There is a lot to consider: the specifics of each case, the age of the inquirer, the local laws, the child safeguarding policies, the risks, input from the inquirer. Cooperating with local authorities is crucial.

The role of an organizational Ombuds is unique in Benin and in the African continent. The government in Benin was thrilled when they heard that SOS Children’s Villages is implementing this model. They asked us to provide them with all the information about the Ombuds so that they can recommend this model to other childcare organizations.


Can you tell us something about your background that prepared you to become an ombuds?

Academically, I hold a master’s degree in sociology and anthropology, a master’s degree in gender and project management, and a bachelor’s degree in law.

I worked for 8 years in a Japanese NGO called ‘’Hunger Free World - Benin’’ as a project manager for youth development. I was also a focal point for child protection of Hunger Free World - Benin.

The sociology studies enabled me to develop my ability to adjust to any situation. Youth development support was my main responsibility for eight years. In addition, working with children and young people provided me with meaningful knowledge on what’s important for them and how to better listen to their needs. Working with children and young people helped me develop humility and competences that I am currently using in my position of National Ombuds.

My main professional purpose is to be helpful to children and young people, because, as they encounter difficulties, they need to be safe, heard, and supported.


Do you know how you will you cooperate with other ombudspersons in the region and globally?

We will be able to cooperate regularly thanks to physical or online meetings. Working together will be key to the success of the Ombuds Office. I report to the Regional Ombuds. I hope that once more National Ombuds are in place, we will regularly meet  online to support each other.


What do you like most about your work?

There are many aspects of my job that I enjoy. Listening to children and exploring possible solutions to their problems with them. Listening is extremely helpful in building trust-based relationships with children and young people.  

The four principles of the Ombuds Office help to allow children and young people to feel comfortable and confident enough to share their concerns. Through the principles, I am able to show the inquirer how the Ombuds Office is focused on their concern and how their well-being is our priority, 

Above all, the Ombuds role allows me to show every person I encounter how much I value them and how they are unique. I get the opportunity to assist people, which I truly appreciate.


Find out more about the Ombuds Office for SOS Children's Villages

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