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We live in a society where children are often not taken seriously. A society that says children should be seen and not heard. I believe it’s time that we do away with this narrative and give children the opportunity to have their voices heard, and to speak on issues that affect them. The popular saying “nothing for us, without us” should be put into practice when we undertake research and develop interventions that affect and directly impact children.

How can we not be seeking more of children’s voices when violence against children is so prevalent, with an estimated 1 billion children between the ages 2-17 years old experiencing violence in the past year and much of this actually occurring in the home?  If we really want to make a difference in children’s lives, we need to centre their voices. Using participatory research methods is one way to achieve this.

Whilst, caregivers and professionals are important sources of information on what children who have experienced violence need they may not be fully aware of, or may severely underestimate both children’s exposure to violence and what this exposure means for them, as noted by Noble-Carr et al. With this in mind the importance of actually engaging children in violence against children research cannot be stressed enough.

The Banakekeli Young Carers study, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the University of Witwatersrand, is looking at the intergenerational transmission of violence across three generations. We are interviewing young adults between the ages of 18-13 yrs, their caregivers 40yrs+, and the young adult’s children (6-8 years).  We have had many successes as well as challenges in interviewing young children. However, we still believe in the importance of hearing the experiences from the child’s voice.

We also believe in the importance of sharing our experiences of working with young children to add to the body of literature on how best to engage young children in research on sensitive topics.

Challenges

Many scholars have raised concerns about interviewing children. Some of the concerns include participant safety, the potential for distress and young children’s suspected inability to understand and meaningfully engage in research. From our own experience with interviewing young children about their violence experiences, we identified our own challenges.

1.   Young children often become distracted or tired when being interviewed which may lead to the interview taking longer than anticipated.

2.     Interviews with children younger than 5 are possible however the narratives are not as rich as interviews with older children.

3.     Children sometimes change their story of violence experiences due to fear of “getting in trouble” when they are told about the mandatory reporting to child services that will take place.

4.     Parents often want to eavesdrop in the interviews to hear what the child will say.

5.     Receiving ethical clearance when working with very young children can be a very lengthy process.

As a study we have managed to work around many of these challenges and implement strategies that have made working with children on violence research much more feasible. We believe that the advantages of centring young people’s voices in research on them far outweigh the challenges.

Picture: Kinetic family drawing developed by child participant

What works

To assist us in gathering the most accurate data the following strategies have been implemented in the study:

  1. The use of image prompts on tablets to aid comprehension. Tactile visual aids (e.g., 3 jars of beans or rice filled to the full, half empty and empty level to correspond with ratings of ‘always’, ‘sometimes’, and ‘never’) helped children to understand abstract concepts and increase engagement.
  2. The use of arts-based techniques in the interviews offers accessible and reliable means of storytelling about life experiences and perspectives on violence, regardless of drawing ability
  3. Drawings are an important and effective tool for interviewers to use as a prompt and for the participant to talk from.
  4. The use of play is important in ensuring that children are attentive during the research process as well as to reduce stress and help the child to regulate.
  5. Interviewers need to be thoroughly trained on all aspects of working with children and the playful attitude needs to be consistently practiced and interviewers reminded of.
  6. Children and Interviewers need to be at the same level during the interview at all times to mitigate adult and child power dynamics.
  7. Interviewers always travel in pairs to ensure that whilst one interviewer is conducting the interview the other is distracting the caregiver to ensure confidentiality of the interview with the child.
  8. It is critical to have a full-time social worker on the study to assist with the management of cases promptly.

Picture: Visual aids in the questionnaire

We believe that interviewing children about their experiences of violence is extremely important. Children are often more candid than the adults in their household when asked about domestic violence – as one of our study interviewers said “I think children are like Vuvuzela’s always ready to blow”.  Research with children as respondents of their own experiences provides an opportunity for child protection services, law enforcement and other professionals working with children to provide support for families in need. Talking about violence can also be a positive, affirming experience for children. It highlights that their opinion is significant, appreciated, and respected when often for those who have experienced violence, they may internalise a lack of value or worth. Also, in typically hierarchical relationships with adults where their perspective is not normally solicited, this experience can be restorative.

Written by Mpho Silima

Svri Stay

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Address: Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI)
2nd Floor, Lourie Place, 179 Lunnon Street, Hillcrest, Pretoria, Gauteng 0083, South Africa

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