Listening to the voices of the most vulnerable children on the Universal Children's Day: Child-led research in Sierra Leone

 By Carla Lewis, World Vision UK.

My World Vision career began ten years ago within the Advocacy team in Lebanon, supporting child rights and child participation programmes. UNCRC’s Article 12 was our team’s mantra, and, although I have worked in different offices and different roles over the last decade, the right of children to participate in decisions that affect their lives has remained with me. As the Monitoring Evaluation Accountability and Learning Manager for World Vision UK, I have often been surprised at the absence of real debate and discussion around child participation within our monitoring and evaluation processes. It is not uncommon for me to receive project evaluation reports where children’s voices are entirely absent. How many of our baselines have provided the space for children to meaningfully participate in analysis or target setting? How much of our regular programme planning actually allows space for children’s priorities to be heard? In my experience, while we, as an organisation, have developed real expertise in engaging communities, ‘community’ does not always (or even usually) extend to children.  I, however, have been fascinated by innovative methodologies developed by colleagues to support children in conducting their own child-led research to actively engage in community life.

If child-led research seems like an alien concept, I can easily define it as a participatory process where children conduct research and lead all the stages from selecting the research topic, developing the research questions, collecting and analysing the data, writing up a report and disseminating their findings. Are children capable of doing do that? Yes, absolutely yes, and children from Sierra Leone proved this once again.

As World Vision UK seeks to better understand ‘what works’ for the most vulnerable children, we have committed to putting the voices of the most vulnerable at the heart of our design, monitoring and research processes. As part of this commitment we are conducting a 5-year longitudinal study to understand our impact on the most vulnerable, and along with this the opportunity to include child-led research approaches in our work. It was with great excitement then, that I seized the opportunity to collaborate with experts in child-led research methods from our Global Centre team to coordinate WVUK’s first of many child-led researches, this year in the Jaiama Bongor area of Sierra Leone. Child-led research was developed as one of approaches to engage children in the WV It Takes a World campaign. 

Having visited Sierra Leone several times over the last few years, I was intrigued and perhaps a little nervous at how well the child-led research might work in such a context. Not that I doubted the children’s abilities to engage in research, but the extent to which the methodologies had been contextualised for low literacy rural populations. While our Sierra Leone team have done a fantastic job at engaging children within the Jaiama Bongor programme, for example in children’s clubs and children’s savings groups, it is a context where absolute poverty and lack of opportunity is a daily reality. The local education system creaks under the pressure of a massive proportion of school-aged children and miniscule resources. I wondered if the children in Jaiama Bongor, many of whom might struggle with reading and writing, would really be able to engage in developing questionnaires, analysing data and writing their own report. Of course, I was wrong, and the young researchers proved this from the moment that we met.

I was supported by our local team who transformed into adult facilitators, supporting the 14 young researchers that volunteered to be part of the project. Throughout the process we saw children grow from slightly hesitant newcomers to fully engage in exploring possible research topics related to the most vulnerable children, unanimously select their preferred topic of teenage pregnancy, agree on a sample, develop their own questionnaire, conduct interviews and start to analyse their data.  One of the findings showed that although teenage girls are often seen as ‘wayward’ or ‘disobedient’ by their community, often a major contributing factor is poverty. The children’s data revealed that a typical situation was of young adolescent girls, whose caregivers either could not afford or did not wish to provide for their basic needs, finding boyfriends to pay their school fees or provide food for them. When pregnancy follows the tragic irony is that the girl must drop out of school anyway. The social, educational and health implications of early pregnancy on these girls and their children can be catastrophic.

Although our young researchers are still finishing their report and we await the full findings and recommendations, I was personally struck by their own valuable insights. The girls they interviewed were their ex-classmates, friends, extended relatives. Teenage pregnancy was their daily reality. The children were able to bring their understanding and experience into the analysis to add a richer perspective. Their findings are significant.

This child-led research carried out by these bright Sierra Leonean children has underlined to me that if we as an international development organisation want to really understand how we can more effectively transform the lives of the most vulnerable children; our first port of call must be children themselves. My hope for the future is that projects such as these, move from being stand-alone or “special” projects to becoming business as usual, creating more opportunities and space for children and young people to participate and contribute to decisions on issues that are relevant to them. The young researchers that I met in Jaiama Bongor taught me the value that strong child voice brings across all aspects of our work. On Universal Children's Day, let’s celebrate the capacity children have to be catalysts for rapid positive social change and heed our responsibility to harness and celebrate this amazing potential.

About the author

Carla Lewis is the Monitoring Evaluation Accountability and Learning Manager for World Vision UK. In her role she is responsible for ensuring the quality of monitoring and evaluation processes and integration of accountability and learning across World Vision UK’s programmes. Ms Lewis has a special focus on developing innovative ways of building an evidence base to demonstrate World Vision’s impact on the most vulnerable children.