Issue 46 - Article 6

Community perceptions of ‘protection’ in Kenya and Timor-Leste

March 25, 2010
Yvonne Ageng’o, Nicolau dos Reis da Costa and Louise Searle

Humanitarian protection is widely regarded as encompassing respect for the fundamental rights of people, for their safety, dignity and integrity as human beings.[1] Protection actors are encouraged to work directly with affected individuals and populations, and to strengthen the capacity of communities to protect themselves.[2] But to what extent do agencies and populations at risk share similar definitions, ideas and priorities regarding protection? In 2008 and 2009, Oxfam Timor-Leste, Caritas Australia (Timor-Leste), CARE Timor-Leste and World Vision Kenya conducted 34 focus group discussions in three locations in Timor-Leste and three locations in Kenya. The discussions were one component of baseline data collection to field-test minimum standards for including protection in humanitarian response.[3] The purpose of the discussions was to understand community definitions and experiences of safety and dignity, to gain insight into perceptions of how agency practice impacts on, or influences, safety and dignity, and to compare and contrast the priorities that communities and agencies place on agency response to protection issues.

Findings and analysis

Three critical areas of interest emerged from the community consultation exercises. First, agencies face significant conceptual and linguistic challenges in understanding community perceptions of protection. Second, community perceptions vary greatly, both between different contexts and between different groups within the same context. Third, community priorities for agency action on protection are often at variance with the actions prioritised by agencies.

Translating the concept of protection across different cultural and language groups

The first challenge in understanding community perceptions of protection is finding appropriate terminology to clearly convey the concept. In many contexts there is no direct translation for the word ‘protection’, or even for associated words such as ‘safety’ and ‘dignity’. In Kiswahili, the national language of Kenya, several words are needed to express the full articulation of a rights-based approach to protection, as outlined in the definition adopted by humanitarian and human rights agencies in 1999.[4] When translating ‘protection’ into Tetun, the national language of Timor-Leste, even greater challenges arise. Not only does the word ‘protection’ not have a direct translation, but facilitators were unable to adequately articulate the concept in terms of its component ideas encompassing safety, dignity and rights. There are no Tetun words for ‘safety’ or ‘dignity’, and so Bahasa, the national language of Indonesia, and Portuguese terms were used instead. This limited participation in focus group discussions to people fluent in languages other than their first language, and also required facilitators to prompt focus groups by providing descriptions and examples of what safety and dignity might look like, introducing bias into the findings.


Perceptions of protection

Community perceptions of protection varied greatly. Gender and age group differences were particularly evident, reinforcing that protection interventions must be adapted for different individuals and groups depending on the context and the nature of the threats and violations being encountered.[5] In Kenya, men across geographical locations and ethnic groups perceived the most important protection risks as relating to loss of livelihood, including through theft, cattle raids or ethnic conflict. Many focus groups also referred to the post-election violence in 2008, linking safety to freedom of movement, freedom of speech and the ability to earn a livelihood. Women, by contrast, were much more likely to describe protection as relating to their own personal safety while going about their household and caring duties, especially collecting water and firewood. In Timor-Leste the gender differences are comparable: women frequently identified domestic violence as the key protection concern and discussed safety as it related to themselves and their children within the household. Men reported protection concerns related to coercion during election periods, cross-border attacks and land disputes.

Perceptions regarding dignity tended to be very strongly linked to gender and cultural roles and responsibilities. In Kenya, women defined dignity in terms of receiving appreciation for their household and caring work. All men in the Kenyan focus group discussions strongly associated dignity with being able to provide for their families, including the ability to feed their families and pay school fees. Men felt that their dignity was undermined when they were not given the opportunity to speak or represent their community members in a public gathering or social setting. In Timor-Leste the concept of dignity (or lack thereof) is strongly linked with concepts of ‘respect’ and ‘culture’; for example, women described the traditional practice of ‘bride price’ as compromising their dignity by turning them into possessions and exposing them to accompanying physical violence. One woman described the bride price practice as ‘human trafficking in the family that is covered up with culture’.[6]

Perceptions of agency influence and impact on community protection

In Kenya, participants identified examples of agency practice that contributed to and improved their safety and dignity, as well as actions that undermined their dignity and had a negative impact on their safety. At times, both positive and negative examples of agency practice were identified within the same project area, and were associated with the same project activities.

All groups and locations in Kenya identified enhanced safety due to agency presence, largely as a result of agency representation and advocacy to the authorities in relation to community needs. Focus groups also cited safe and confidential mechanisms for voicing concerns to the agency and having their complaints addressed. The manner in which project activities are implemented was also seen as impacting on safety. In several contexts, community members said that the agency carried out its work in a transparent manner, and did not create conflict within the community. In one location, an agency’s decision to split project areas into smaller sites enhanced access by reducing travel distances, enhancing security and increasing participation. Conversely, in locations where project sites were some distance away this was seen as having a significant negative impact on community safety. Community members highlighted several examples where food items were delayed or project activities ended late in the day, resulting in significant safety concerns when returning home. Inadequate attention to health and safety issues at project sites was also highlighted.

Community members also explored ideas about agency impact on their dignity. In areas where agencies treated community members with equal respect, including marginalised individuals such as widows and people with disabilities, the agency was described as promoting dignity. Routinely informing project participants of their rights and responsibilities, in writing and in pictorial format, was also cited as having a positive impact on dignity, allowing people to feel informed and meaningfully involved in the humanitarian response. Advocacy by agencies on issues such as protection and the promotion of child rights was identified as contributing to dignity as well as safety.

Minimum standards common to all sectors: perceptions and priorities

In Timor-Leste, a ranking exercise was conducted with communities and NGO representatives in addition to the focus group discussions, with participants being invited to rank a simplified version of the eight standards common to all sectors from the Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response. Both communities and agencies regarded Common Standard 1 (agencies prioritise the safety and dignity of disaster-affected populations) as most important. Communities and agencies also had similar views on the importance of Common Standard 5 (recognising the state as the primary actor for protection), Common Standard 6 (including the rights, needs and capacities of vulnerable groups in all stages of agency response) and Common Standard 7 (agencies have policies and procedures to govern advocacy responses to protection concerns).

However, opinion varied greatly on the importance of two standards. Common Standard 3 states that ‘humanitarian assistance and services are provided equitably and impartially, based on the vulnerability and needs of individuals and groups affected by disaster’.[7] While communities ranked this in third place, local and international agencies put it seventh and eighth respectively. Community respondents engaged in lively debate when considering this standard, and discussed instances where they felt agencies had not provided equitable and impartial assistance. Community members also highlighted the importance of agencies providing equitable access to information, as well as goods or services. This also suggests that, in the Timorese context, the rationale or justification for targeting is not always clearly or widely communicated. The relatively low ranking of this standard by agencies indicates that they may not be aware of how important this standard is for communities. Communities and NGOs also diverged over Common Standard 8, which ensures that agencies respond appropriately to human rights abuses in conformity with their mandate and recognised good practice. Overall, both communities and local NGOs placed this standard in eighth place, while international NGOs ranked it third. Respondents commented that they felt this was not an NGO responsibility but rather an issue to which local leaders (xefe sucos) should respond. When community responses were disaggregated by gender, women ranked this standard higher than men, with respondents suggesting that agencies must not remain silent on issues of abuse. This difference in response between men and women may be related to the fact that domestic violence perpetrated by men is one of the most prominent protection issues in Timor-Leste.[8] Men were inclined to see agency responses to ‘private’ protection issues as undesirable, while women were more open to agency engagement on this issue.

The ranking exercise holds two important lessons for agencies. First, as the minimum agency standards are being field-tested and redrafted over the next two years community input will be critical to ensure the development of standards and  indicators that are coherent, relevant and useful, both for agencies and for communities. Second, agencies attempting to implement the standards need know which ones are most important to the communities they are working with, and why. This allows agencies to prioritise protection mainstreaming programming, advocacy and resources in line with community preferences.


The extensive community consultations carried out in Timor-Leste and Kenya have been invaluable. The exercise has helped to inform our understanding of how communities define protection, and how agency action on protection issues can be brought more closely into line with community priorities. The significant barriers to translating and communicating protection concepts across different cultural and language groups need to be recognised and overcome. This may require the adoption of innovative, context-specific methods, such as the ranking exercises used in Timor-Leste. In addition, attempts to get to grips with differences in perception, both within and between cultural contexts, need to be continued and strengthened. Ultimately, the work undertaken in Kenya and Timor-Leste emphasises again that, in order to effectively identify and respond to community concerns about protection, agencies must develop a deeper understanding of how the community perceives protection. This engagement may take more time and effort than has previously been acknowledged.

Yvonne Ageng’o is Protection Assistant with World Vision Kenya. Nicolau dos Reis da Costa is Protection Officer for Oxfam Timor-Leste and Louise Searle is Humanitarian Protection Advisor for World Vision Australia. The inter-agency protection project in Timor-Leste and Kenya involves World Vision Australia, Oxfam, Caritas Australia, CARE and CRS (as a local partner in Timor-Leste). The agencies involved have worked together on the draft version of the Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response, and the field-testing of the tool. The project is funded by AusAID  and World Vision Australia, with field-testing in North and South Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar led by World Vision UK and funded by DFID. For more information please contact

[1] Hugo Slim and Andrew Bonwick, An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies (2005), p. 33.

[2] Ibid., p. 53. See also International Committee of the Red Cross, Towards Professional Standards for Protection Work: First Consolidated Draft (2009), p. 13.

[3] CARE Australia, Caritas Australia, Oxfam Australia and World Vision Australia, Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response (2008), For more on the development and testing of the standards, see the accompanying article ‘Standards To Incorporate Protection into Humanitarian Response: Do They Work?’.

[4] See Slim and Bonwick, An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies, p. 33.

[5] Ibid., pp. 58–59.

[6] Focus group discussion with a women’s group in Oecusse, Timor-Leste.

[7] Common Standard 3 of the Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response is directly quoted from The Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (2004), Common Standard 4: Targeting (p. 35). For more on the Minimum Agency Standards, see the accompanying article by Louise Searle and Kate Sutton.

[8] H. E. José Luis Gueterres, speech to the Third Committee on Human Rights, 17 November 2003, available at More generally, see Kathryn Robertson, ‘Case Study on Gender-based Violence in Timor-Leste’, UNFPA, August 2005,


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