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Reflections on psychosocial response in the context of research

11th August 2022


  • Chi-Chi Undie
    Chi-Chi Undie

    Technical Director and Senior Associate, Population Council

Reliable data about violence against children in humanitarian settings is urgently needed.

As part of the Rooted Reflections blog series, guest author Chi-Chi Undie, Senior Associate for Population Council and Together for Girls board member, shares her reflections on psychosocial response in the context of research and implementing the first-ever Humanitarian Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (HVACS), gathering vital data about violence against refugee children.

About the training

It was supposed to be ‘just another gender-based violence training session.’ Or, so I thought. It was ‘just’ one of more than 20 modules that formed part of a data collectors’ training session in preparation for conducting a Violence Against Children and Youth Survey in refugee settings.

I don’t say this to minimize the importance of gender-based violence (GBV), as it is — without question — a significant issue (one that I’ve spent much of the last dozen years addressing).

I say this to reflect my honest surprise that a one-hour training session on Violence as a Health and Human Rights Issue would be anything but uneventful.

The training module aimed to raise trainees’ awareness of the gravity of GBV, given its health implications and association with rights violations. A deep understanding of these issues was critical for ensuring that the impending data collection occurred with the utmost sensitivity and care.

The training was taking place in Uganda, convened by the Baobab Research Program Consortium (RPC). This is a partnership devoted to including refugee contexts in surveys and interventions from which they have historically been excluded, due to perceptions that such inclusion would be too challenging.

Training session with data collectors for the VACS to be conducted in refugee settings
Photo courtesy of Population Council

Over a five-year period, Baobab is introducing surveys such as the Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (VACS); the abortion incidence complications method (developed by the Guttmacher Institute); and a longitudinal survey on unintended pregnancy (developed by the STEP UP RPC), into refugee contexts for the very first time.

In the weeks leading up to the training I had thoroughly prepared my materials. The night before I looked over the gender-based violence training slides one last time. The next day, I delivered the presentation in an interactive fashion, doing my best to engage as meaningfully as possible with a large cohort of data collectors. I noted that they seemed sufficiently interested, enthusiastic, and enlightened by the information. At the end of the session, it was time for a tea break, and I considered my job done.

The unexpected impact of a gender-based violence training session

I was not prepared for what was to happen next. One of the participants walked up and sat next to me – to talk about something fieldwork-related, I presumed. I was wrong.

“I want you to know that I’ve attended training sessions on gender-based violence before, but this time, there was something different about it. You hit the nail on the head with every point you made – about the consequences that can affect a person throughout their lives. About how serious and unjust it is. About everything. You were talking to me. You were talking about me. I’m almost 40 years old, and I’ve never told anyone this before …"

Training participant

And she proceeded to disclose her early childhood experience of sexual violence at the hands of a trusted relative who ought to have protected her.* She talked of the ways in which this experience continued to affect her decades after, although its effects had only dawned on her after participating in the training session.

At the sight of a tear rolling down her cheek, I snapped out of my state of shock and handed her a tissue.

My astonishment is rather embarrassing, in retrospect. After all, I rattle off the statistics all the time about how up to a billion children aged 2-17 worldwide are estimated to have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional violence or neglect in the last year.

In my various gender-based violence training sessions, I invariably mention that, given the sobering statistics, the unfortunate reality is that a large proportion of those in the room have likely had such an experience. Having a survivor come up to me to disclose her childhood experience therefore shouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary.

I thought about all the survivors over the years for whom my training sessions might have struck a chord, but who perhaps hadn’t felt ready or comfortable to disclose the experiences, and I realized I could have done better by at least making support available during these sessions.

I told her how courageous she was, and how humbled I was that she would choose to share this with me. We talked about options for psychosocial support by a trained professional (which she had never received), and I was glad that she was amenable to seeking care. We set a date for ensuring this happened.

I thanked her profusely for jolting me out of my state of ‘over-familiarity’ with certain aspects of my work, and for reminding me of why I do it in the first place. I thanked her for teaching me a lesson I should have learned long before now, preoccupied as I am with psychosocial responses for survivors – the lesson that psychosocial support must became an integral part of my GBV data collection training sessions.

As widespread as gender-based violence is, it no longer makes sense to restrict psychosocial support to conventional locations (e.g., health facilities, schools, or police stations). This kind of support is needed in as many domains as we can integrate it into, including within research spaces where we can easily take it for granted that our focus is on getting the science right, forgetting that science is irrelevant without people. This includes not only participants in our research, but also those with whom we work to build the evidence base – and ourselves.

A teachable moment

My tardiness in having this teachable moment doesn’t mean that other researchers have not been attuned to the needs I describe. The Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI), for instance, builds psychosocial support into its biennial conference (the SVRI Forum), ensuring trained counselors are on stand-by to support survivors who might be triggered by conference proceedings. Impressively, their conference abstract review process also attends to this issue, with counselling available for abstract-reviewers that end up needing it in the course of the review process.

As a result of my own teachable moment, however, I would urge that we go even further, and begin to position psychosocial support within other aspects of research – everything from training sessions to data analysis processes and beyond.

This call goes beyond the gender-based violence field alone, extending to the broader field of sexual and reproductive health and rights and other fields of research. I recall that on a previous research project on unintended pregnancy, the study’s qualitative interview transcripts posed severe trauma for a researcher involved in the analysis. Unbeknownst to the research team, she had recently lost a deeply desired pregnancy, and experienced debilitating trauma from reading other women’s narratives of unintended and unwanted pregnancies. In retrospect, psychosocial support should have been available and discussed upfront on this project.

The bottom line is that it is time for a much wider conversation on psychosocial support outside of intervention and fieldwork contexts alone, and for this sort of response to be given its rightful place in pre- and post-fieldwork research efforts.

*This story is shared with the permission of the survivor concerned, who hopes that other survivors will reach out for support when they hear about her own experience.

About Rooted Reflections

This blog is one of three in the ‘Rooted Reflections’ series. They are part of the Baobab Research Programme Consortium blog series for documenting reflections, experiences, and learnings that are often left uncaptured by researchers in their implementation of research studies, and by the peer-reviewed literature. The Baobab RPC is an Africa-based, African-led collaboration that is working to change the narrative about the possibilities for sexual and reproductive health and rights research in refugee settings.

Funded by FCDO from 2021 to 2026, Baobab is bringing rigorous, globally-known sexual and reproductive health and rights surveys into refugee settings in the East and Horn of Africa (EHA) for the first time ever, and coupling these with operations research and evidence-informed interventions. Evidence from Baobab will be used to inform the programming and policies of UNHCR and its partners working to respond to the sexual and reproductive health and rights needs of refugees. Baobab is led out of Kenya by the Population Council, Inc., in collaboration with three other Kenya-based institutions: Population Council, Kenya; the African Population and Health Research Center; and Well Made Strategy.