A blog post from Dr Catherine Maternowska, Professor of Violence Prevention for Young People
Violence against Children (VAC) is a big, global problem—over 1 billion children (which translates to over 50% of all children aged 2-17 years old) have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence in the past year.
The good news is that the science behind violence prevention is making headway with WHO-endorsed global guidelines called INSPIRE: Seven strategies to end violence against children—a suite of products with examples of strong evidence, an implementation handbook and even indicator guidelines.
The odd news is that no one has ever asked the children and young people: What do you think of these interventions? Would they work in your home, school, or community? What would make your world a safer place?
In 2021, the Data Collaborative for Children with UNICEF funded a global systematic review covering different INSPIRE strategies. Systematic reviews were originally developed to ensure that decisions affecting people’s lives are informed by an up-to-date understanding of relevant research evidence. Research methods, like research use and uptake, are often full of power dynamics. Systematic reviews are part of a generally closed feedback loop. Typically, they are generated by academics and either used by other academics or, at best, delivered to policy makers.
While it is established good practice to ensure that end users—or the people who are affected by the interventions—are involved and engaged in systematic reviews, this is uncommon practice.
It ends up that children and young people are rarely prioritised as relevant knowledge brokers.
Enter young citizen science!
Citizen science or active public involvement in scientific research is a growing field. We know that when local actors, including the young people INSPIRE strategies are designed to protect, are part of the knowledge-generating process both the problems and solutions can look very different.
And so we put our idea to the litmus test with additional funding from the Data Collaborative to develop the Young People Advisors Project.
We invited end-users of INSPIRE—young people from Brazil, China, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Uganda—to the table. They teamed up with the early career researchers conducting the reviews from different universities in Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. We called them YPAs for short and, as their titles suggest, we wanted them to ‘advise’ their senior research mentors (from the same countries) to use a child- and youth-centric lens while reviewing interventions.
We also wanted to learn from them not as passive recipients of prevention interventions but as active agents thinking about everyday violence in their home countries.
Our approach was inclusive and human-centred, and we used rigourous qualitative methodologies. We delivered knowledge around safeguarding, violence prevention, and child protection systems through a combination of exchange, participatory evaluation, and support.
We planned learning exchanges in the form of 9 webinars (working in 5 different languages!). While all the webinars were engaging, one was exemplary, inspired by a YPA from Uganda (and fully endorsed by YPAs from Brazil, Colombia, China and Cote d’Ivoire). They conducted a fascinating cross-cultural exchange about violence from their varied national perspectives, and it was during this session when the YPAs had a lightbulb moment: they realized they were in charge.
Agency is one of the most important things on the path to social change. While discussing violence in their own countries, they understood that they were not so divided by international borders. It was as if the shame—of violent parenting practices at home or a state that openly harasses LGBTQ+—lifted. They voiced issues that are central to why child protection systems don’t work—including things like racism, patriarchy and power.
These are not issues typically raised in the corridors of power where public health strategies are designed. In this session and others, the YPAs generated for us data and wisdom from the field.
Over the course of the project, they questioned many issues, for example, who determines the definitions of violence used by prevention practitioners and why civil society is not more involved with policy making and practice suggestions.
We captured what was happening with Outcome mapping (OM), a methodology for planning and assessing a programme or project that is oriented towards change and social transformation.
Our practice of outcome mapping comes from a long history working with Matter of Focus, an Edinburgh-based company that has provided many services to our global work. OM provides a set of tools to design and gather information on the outcomes, or behavioural changes, of the change process.
It helps a project or programme’s participants learn about its/their influence on the progression of change and therefore helps those in the assessment process think more systematically and pragmatically about what they are doing and to adapt variations in strategies to bring about desired outcomes.
At the start of the project, together, we made a map about how we might achieve some meaningful outcomes, starting with what the YPAs thought success would look like. We held ourselves accountable—after each session, the YPAs filled in a simple form that told us: what they liked, what they would change and improve, what they learned and what they might do with that new knowledge.
Real time measurement is powerful. The data suggested ways to improve our facilitation and suggested we use a lot more visual learning when working in 5 languages. The feedback forced us to course correct; the YPAs themselves validated what was working about our process and what wasn’t. At the same time, we could gauge their levels of learning.
Case studies by Young People Advisors
At the end of the programme, the YPAs wrote and published some impressive case studies, published by the SDG End Violence Partnership. They worked with their senior research mentors to identify, from the systematic review findings, an intervention that met the criteria to be included in the review (e.g., a successful INSPIRE intervention).
They then read about the ‘successful’ intervention and set out to write a case study, but from the lens of a young person in their own national context. Each of the case studies has a section called Reflections & Recommendations—where they critiqued the research design, the outcomes, and the relevance of the interventions for young people.
Their insights were brilliant.
For example, ‘income generation’ is one of the more successful INSPIRE strategies that has been shown to reduce violence, with years of peer-reviewed articles to prove so. Our YPA from Cote d’Ivoire questioned the meaning of the scientific results:
“Cash injections to households clearly protect children but . . . cash to mothers or caretakers does not automatically mean that the entire family benefits. Often the money is insufficient particularly in families with many children. Children are still in peril even if it strengthens women’s economic standing. . .it does not necessarily prevent children from being exposed to work[-related] risks . . .Living in a precarious district [of Abidjan], I know what happens . . . “
Another schools-based intervention, widely lauded in the violence prevention community as a great success, was critiqued by the Brazilian YPAs:
” . . .students as well as teachers should have notebooks for reporting. Students should be allowed to record their feelings about receiving corporal punishments. This would make children and young people feel valued and would provide needed knowledge on young persons’ perspectives. Because children suffer from violence, they are likely to propose creative alternatives to improve collective behaviour in the classroom.”
The YPAs demonstrated how direct engagement can inform the needs and opportunities to support truly ending violence. Insights generated from dialogues like those we held with the YPAs—truly (young) citizen scientists—provided a window into the barriers and constraints faced at local levels where children and young people are navigating their lives, and often with limited control.
What the YPAs made clear is that, ultimately, it is not only about the supply of data, evidence, and knowledge products—or scientific reviews about what may work in one country or another—but equally about the demand from the intended end users to really understand their perspectives.
The YPAs generated insights that are as useful for academics as they are for the WHO. Importantly, they remind us that practice-based knowledge, or the collective strength of communities to analyse data, interpret results, and contribute to new discoveries and emergent opportunities, is deeply undervalued, and needs a more central role in generating, transforming, and mobilising evidence.