Special Reports

Applying feminist principles to GBV data collection: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

Sylvia Namakula and Agnes Grace Nabachwa from Healing and Resilience after Trauma (HaRT), an NGO based in Uganda dedicated to holistic healing among women and girls who have experienced human trafficking and gender-based violence. Sylvia and Agnes have recently blogged about their research and how they implemented Trauma-informed Phone Interviews during the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda (PHOTO /Courtesy)

What does feminist-informed (GBV) research during COVID mean to you?

This was the question colleagues from Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM)Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI)Population CouncilHealing and Resilience after Trauma (HaRT)Care International, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) discussed in a recent webinar. The overall aim of the webinar was to share experiences of adhering to feminist principles while conducting research during COVID-19 lockdowns, and lessons for a post-COVID world.

1. When thinking about this panel discussion, Dr. Chi-Chi Undie, from the Population Council in Kenya, and SVRI’s Board Chair and Co-Chair of SVRI’s Leadership Council was our first choice to moderate this discussion. Chi-Chi and colleagues have been reflecting on opportunities for doing research on GBV during COVID. (Gevers et al., 2020; Namy & Dartnall, 2020; Empowered Aid, 2020; SVRI & Innovations for Poverty Action, 2020; Namakula & Nabachwa, 2020; Undie et al., 2020; LSHTM, 2020; Bhatia et al., 2020; Singh et al. forthcoming 2021).

Panelists included:

Dr. Anik Gevers, a Technical Specialist for SVRI and UNDP, whose work focuses on bringing feminist approaches to VAW and VAC research, capacity strengthening, and intervention development. Anik, Liz Dartnall, and Angelica Pino from the SVRI recently co-authored a paper on capacity strengthening for research during COVID (Gevers et al., 2020).

Sylvia Namakula and Agnes Grace Nabachwa from Healing and Resilience after Trauma (HaRT), an NGO based in Uganda dedicated to holistic healing among women and girls who have experienced human trafficking and gender-based violence. Sylvia and Agnes have recently blogged about their research and how they implemented Trauma-informed Phone Interviews during the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda (Namakula & Nabachwa, 2020).

Professor Heidi Stöckl, in addition to being an SVRI Leadership Council member, is a Professor of Social Epidemiology and Director of the Gender Violence & Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Heidi and the team have been doing research on IPV during COVID and she was recently on a panel talking about the use of phone interviews during COVID (LSHTM, 2020).

Loujine Fattal, research manager in Lebanon at Care International, has been working to create or adapt aid delivery models that actively work to reduce power disparities and give women and girls a sustained voice in how aid is delivered – which is of particular importance during COVID (Empowered Aid, 2020).

The panel discussed the following questions:

What feminist principles are core to your research?

Feminist principles are important in not just what we research, but how, where, and who we engage in the research. Feminist research and research processes need to be about respect, inclusivity, co-creation, and partnerships – centering women’s realities and voices in what they have experienced, in creating solutions, and in how we determine whether or not solutions are effective. Feminist research requires us to be mindful of our own privilege, our own power and bias, and how that may influence the research process. None of us can be neutral observers, and trying to, or pretending that we are, can be problematic.

“There is not one knowledge holder or pen holder in the research process and different kinds of knowledge must be respected and amplified so we can get a nuanced and multifaceted view of complex issues” ~ Anik Gevers

Why are feminist research principles important for research affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The needs and safety of women and girls involved in our research are of paramount importance. Yes, we need the data to help guide service provision and prevention efforts during COVID, but we cannot compromise participant safety. Safety means providing a safe environment for research to take place – our environment as researchers, and women/girls’ environment as participants. Feminist principles guide us as researchers to ensure that as we conduct the research, we prioritize the safety of participants.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just me collecting data and moving away, but improving and protecting the lives of the women and girls that I am working with” ~ Sylvia Namakula

“We need to focus on women and girls’ freedom of choice and autonomy” ~ Agnus Nabachwa

Upholding feminist principles when doing research with survivors means seeing them as collaborators, rather than objects of our work. Information given to participants needs to be truthful and accurate to provide them with what they need to know to participate freely and have agency.

How have feminist principles guided the adaptations you have made to research methods?

When we talk about mutual respect as a feminist principle in conducting research, we need to ensure that the environment where information is shared is private enough and that the participant is not at risk. When using telephonic interviews to do research, interviewers need to be adequately trained to listen to the environment and cues to ensure participant safety.

“In the Mwanza study on predictors of intimate partner violence, the power to control the interview was given to the interviewee – they found it easier to say no to giving more information. This was empowering for women” ~ Heidi Stöckl

Feminist research also means caring and supporting the research team and ensuring they are well trained and supported during the research process. For example, LSHTM provides in-depth training and regular check-ins with researchers – which they have found the key to sustaining the wellbeing of researchers. Check-in meetings not only focus on the research but also provide researchers with space where they feel heard and can raise issues that are important to them.

Why do feminist principles get thrown out during a crisis when they actually become even more important?

In a global crisis, there is a substantial risk of responses and research becoming gender-blind, the international community may focus on short-term needs, rather than rights-based approaches and responses.

“We need to reflect and we need to be louder about the importance of working with feminist principles during times of global crisis ~ Loujine Fattal

As researchers, we need to have an open and honest conversation about the impact of the crisis on women as well as other excluded and marginalized communities and what this means for human rights in the longer term. Now more than ever, we should increase support for feminist movements and ensure their participation in responses to COVID-19.

What are the key lessons learned in adapting data collection for how feminist research should be conducted in a post-COVID world? 

For the SVRI, support means being both caring and flexible. Caring is the first response  –  being kind and understanding that the pandemic is a difficult situation for everyone on multiple levels. What is needed now is not a rigid take on how to move forward, but flexibility and a return to the roots of what feminist principles are. These principles can serve as a useful guide on the way forward, fostering the collaborative generation of solutions, while also drawing more people into the conversation. We are all in this together.

Care, kindness, and support are powerfully feminist, and principles to be applied to ourselves, as people who are undertaking research and to those we interact with in conducting and disseminating the research. Offering care, kindness and support ensures that we are not only undertaking research for the sake of doing research, but that our research and knowledge-creation endeavors are deeply tied to improving policies, programs, and, ultimately, the lives of women and girls.

Final reflections

Multiple organizations are currently collecting data on GBV. This is not only an issue in terms of duplication of research but also with regard to the fatigue of communities constantly asked about these topics. As feminist researchers, we need to think about how we can coordinate our efforts more around data collection to ensure we are not duplicating, but rather, building on existing research.

Another key discussion during the webinar was that of bringing women’s stories into our work through community-led and participatory research, and how to bring knowledge and learnings from these stories to peer-reviewed academic literature.

During COVID, research findings need to be rapidly shared, providing little time to produce peer-review publications. Webinar participants discussed a revaluing of the type of publications that are valuable during times of crises, where information is at a premium. Blogs were cited as an emerging source of information, along with the need to create a peer review system for blogs to reassure the reader of the validity of the content.

In sum, the continuous reflection of our feminist values and principles in research is important to ensure our work remains inclusive, caring and that we are advocating for different forms of knowledge that make a visible impact in the lives of women and girls.

Watch the webinar recording here

Useful resources

Amiya Bhatia, B., Fabbri, C., Cerna-Turoff, I., Tanton, C., Knight, L., Turner, E., Lokot, M., Lees, S., Cislaghi, B., Peterman, A., Guedes, A., & Devries, K. (2020). COVID-19 response measures and violence against children. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 98(9): 581-644.

COFEM. (2020). COVID-19 Resources for VAWG mitigation and prevention, self and collective care, assistance, and more.

Gevers, A., Dartnall, E., Pino, A. (2020). SVRI Knowledge Exchange: Lessons learned: Pivoting to online learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pretoria: Sexual Violence Research Initiative.

Namy, S., Dartnall, E. (2020). SVRI Knowledge Exchange: Pivoting to remote research on violence against women during COVID-19. Pretoria: SVRI

Podcast: Empowered Aid. (2020). Women’s Protection and Empowerment. Stitcher.

Namakula, S., Nabachwa, A.G. (2020). Trauma-informed Phone Interviews on Sensitive Topics: Learning from the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. SVRI Blog.

SVRI. (2020). Covid-19 resource page.

Salamander Trust., Athena., UNAIDS., AIDS Legal Network., Project Empower., HEARD., University of KwaZulu-Natal. (2017). Action Linking Initiatives on Violence Against Women and HIV Everywhere, ALIV(H)E framework. Salamander Trust.

Sexual Violence Research Initiative., Innovations for Poverty Action. (2020). Knowledge Exchange: Adjusting to Covid. Pretoria: SVRI.

Singh, N.S., Lokot, M., Undie, C., Onyango, M.A., Morgan, R., Harmer, A., Freedman, J., Heidari, S. (forthcoming, 2021). Transformative research for forced displacement: An ethical, feminist, decolonial approach for COVID-19 and beyond. The Lancet.

Undie, C., Haberland, N., Mathur, S., Vieitez, I., Pulerwitz, J. (2020). Data collection and COVID-19: What’s gender got to do with it? Gender and Covid-19.

LSHTM -Panel on remote gender-based violence ethics and methods during COVID-19, Webinar recording, 10 December 2020.

Written by Elizabeth Dartnall, Chi-Chi Undie, Heidi Stöckl, Anik Gevers, Sylvia Namakula, Agnes Grace Nabachwa, and Loujine Fattal.

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