Participation of children and communities in research

Participation of Children and Communities in Research

is written by Debapriya Bhattacharyya, Research Coordinator at CINI

A large body of research on marginalised groups has been published over the years to advance academic and political knowledge. Yet very few studies have been also made available in an accessible format to the communities they were supposed to serve.

Kolkata makes no exception. It is a popular hub for social researchers interested in the slum-dwelling and other street-connected populations. And so, whenever at CINI we invited these groups to participate in one of our surveys, they would ask us:

“Almost every month somebody is here to know about our problems, asking us questions about different aspects of our lives. But we are still here, aren’t we? What do they do with all the information, then?”

The use of the scientific method to investigate pressing social issues has gained momentum over the past few decades. Scientific research plays a crucial role in prompting public discussions and inform decision-making. In social research, systematic collection and analysis of data from the communities improve academic knowledge while also shaping policies and practices to address their needs. However, it is equally important not to forget that communities are not just “data sources”, but an important part of the research process. It is, therefore, a researcher’s responsibility to ensure that communities themselves are involved, from data production to dissemination, in the whole process. Why is this important?

Knowledge is indeed a form of power that can benefit communities living at the margins of society. For this reason, these communities should actively engage in identifying and understanding the causes and effects of issues affecting them and find sustainable solutions

In this context, participatory action research comes into play. The collaborative approach ensures the empowerment of participants both as researchers and change agents.  When it comes to children and young people, participatory research helps to identify issues, such as intergenerational gaps, relationships of power between children and adults and ensures the collection of authentic information without endangering the child.

Participatory research with children and young people has become increasingly popular since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989. Several Childhood studies on children’s agency already emphasised children’s rational, social and moral abilities and advocated for children’s right to decide the extent of their involvement as participants in research. Article 12 of the Convention on Participation, officially consolidated the principle that children are rational beings, deserving to be heard and participate in decision-making affecting their rights, including in a research context.

With those considerations in view, StreetInvest and CINI, with the support of Wellcome Trust, conducted participatory action research with street-connected children in Kolkata, one of Asia’s largest hubs for this population of children, to identify their complex vulnerabilities and the services available to address them. The research took place in the five wards of the city (i.e. smallest form of the jurisdiction in a city from which services are rolled out) with the highest concentration of street-connected children. Street-connected children and young people were directly involved in the research through the engagement of 30 Street Champions, who were trained and mentored to conduct the research with their peers themselves. Street Champions are also street-connected children and young people who act as spokespeople for the entire population of street-connected children and young people targeted in the research. Their lived experience and understanding of the street make Street Champions better positioned to approach and interact with other participants, and better equipped to understand and empathize with their peers more deeply and extensively. The training of Street Champions was conducted through using a training pack on Participatory Vulnerability Assessment and Service Mapping which was adapted from StreetInvest and University of Dundee’s “Knowledge Exchange Pack”, developed as part of Growing Up on the Streets (GUOTS), a participatory research project which took place in 3 African cities from 2014 to 2019. The resources were tailored by CINI’s research team, which also facilitated children’s participation in the development of research tools and approaches.

Street-connected children were represented in each stage of the research through the active involvement of the Street Champions who were engaged in designing the tools for collecting evidence, using the tools and developing findings and insights on the basis of evidence. As the research progress to its final stage and findings are being refined, Street Champions have been enabled to disseminate the findings through diverse and inclusive materials that will be accessible to their communities. Trained as advocates of their own rights, Street Champions are also using research findings to address policy-makers, informing them on possible ways to make services available, and more accessible to street-connected children.

Ved, one of the Street Champions who has been strongly advocating for the inclusion of street-connected children into schemes and services through dialogues with district and state-level government officials, stated recently:

"We already knew about the problems that we have, but the research helped us to gather evidences on the causes behind these problems and this information gives us the power to identify specific solutions and suggest them to those who make decisions concerning our lives"

Ved (with microphone in hand) speaking about inclusion of street connected children in the presence 0f District Project Officer and other government officials from ICDS