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Most researchers who conduct violence research studies that involve children and young people1 recognize the critical importance of having a safeguarding2 and referral approach as a major ethical consideration in the design of the study. Several governments worldwide have enacted laws that stipulate the roles and responsibilities of everybody in safeguarding children when working with them. The Children Act 2004 in the UK and The Children Amendment Act 2016 in Uganda are some examples of such laws. In addition; research regulatory organizations worldwide have strived to ensure that researchers uphold key ethical values such as;

  • protecting participants from undue harm,
  • ensuring that participation in research is voluntary,
  • obtaining informed consent for participation,
  • making participants aware of their rights to withdraw/ refuse at any stage, and
  • maintaining participants’ anonymity and confidentiality,

In spite of all this, there still remains limited information on whether there are internationally recognized ‘gold standard’ procedures or guidelines to consider when designing a safeguarding and referral approach for children and young people who participate in violence research. Recent research by scholars at Sheffield Hallam University also shows that researchers mentioned the lack of useful precedents as a major challenge encountered while developing the guidelines for their faculty research ethics committee (Furey et al., 2010).

The CoVAC study’s approach to safeguarding and referrals of children and young people who participate in violence research

The Contexts of Violence in Adolescent Cohort (CoVAC) Study is a mixed methods cohort study to examine the epidemiology and patterns of violence exposure in adolescence in children exposed to the Good Schools toolkit aged between 11-14 years while in school in Luweero District, Uganda. In simple terms, it looks at how exposure to violence in childhood translates into the use of, or submission to, violence in later adolescence or early adulthood. We conducted 3 waves of data collection with the same participants since 2012. The total number of interviewed participants at Wave 3 was 2539 (mean age: 20 years).

The study was conducted by Raising Voices; a Ugandan NGO passionate about the rights of children in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Medical Research Council (MRC) Uganda, Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), Makerere University and University College of London (UCL). Due to the fact that all these organizations are committed to ethical research, it was paramount that aspects of safeguarding and referrals be carefully looked into before engaging the children and young people at all waves of data collection. However, this was so challenging at Wave 3 of data collection (2021/2022) due to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of these, Wave 3 data collection started as a phone survey with all data collectors based in their homes. With the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions, we later adopted a hybrid system with a group of data collectors alternating between working at home and at the study office while still conducting phone interviews, and another group conducting face-to-face interviews with participants who had no reliable phone contacts.

In a bid to design an effective safeguarding and referral approach that could fit the remote and hybrid working environment at Wave 3, we searched for internationally agreed guidelines to shape our design but there was limited information about this. We, therefore, had to redesign our safeguarding and referral approach used in the previous waves of data collection while relying on our skills and the feedback from our study participants.


Image 1: Description of how Wave 3 data collection was designed.

What I learned at SVRI Forum 2022

While at the forum, I shared our learnings from Wave 3 of CoVAC Study on how we designed an approach to safeguarding and referrals for our participants, challenges we encountered while using this approach, lessons learned, and recommendations for other researchers conducting violence research that involves children and young people. There was quite a lot of interest in what I shared and several people approached me with a need to learn more about how we designed this approach.

This made me realize the need for formulating internationally recognized guidelines just like the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with the ethical and safety recommendations for intervention research on violence against women and girls3. These guidelines will assist researchers in designing safeguarding and referral approaches for their studies and improve prevention and systematic response to violence against children and young people especially those participating in violence research. This opportunity also unearthed other weaknesses that still exist in the area of research on violence against children such as insufficient funding committed to safeguarding and referrals by some studies, limited knowledge and skills on safeguarding, the dilemma of safeguarding children from abuse while maintaining research confidentiality, challenges working with weak referral systems, especially in low and middle-income countries, etc. All these could be dealt with if there were guidelines that researchers could adapt to their particular circumstances.

Image 2: The author (second from the left) presents learnings from the CoVAC study’s approach to safeguarding and referrals for young people who participate in violence research. First on the left is Ms. M. Catherine Maternowska (Panel Chair), and third on the left is Mpho Silima, followed by Loes Loning and Silvie Bovarnick (fellow panelists).

Call to action

It’s high time for VAC4 researchers to stop working in silos. We should come together to take the lead in designing harmonized procedures and effective knowledge-sharing avenues that could enable us to approach safeguarding and referrals for children and young people in a more effective and efficient way.



1. Young people in this article are defined as those in late adulthood (generally defined as 18 to 22 or 18 to 25)

2. ‘Safeguarding’ is a relatively new term that extends beyond the definition of ‘child-protection’. As much as it refers to protection, safeguarding also encompasses the notion of prevention.


4. Short form for Violence Against Children.

Written by Aggrey Akim, Technical Manager- Learning VAC prevention, Raising Voices



Furey, R., Kay, J., Barley, R., Cripps, C., Shipton, L., & Steill, B. (2010). Developing Ethical Guidelines for Safeguarding Children during Social Research. Research Ethics, 6(4), 120–127. Retrieved from


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