Ensuring ethics in life story collection during COVID times

As the first step in CLARISSA’s systemic action research, we collected life stories from children during the pandemic. The life story sharing process was conducted by Terre des hommes (Tdh) and Gram Bangla Unnayan Committee/ChildHope in Bangladesh, whilst in Nepal it was done by Voice of Children (VOC)/ChildHope and Children-Women in Social Service and Human Rights (CWISH) and Tdh. A total of 650 stories have been collected so far in both countries. Yet, in the context of COVID, setting and applying the safeguarding and ethical standards has been more important than ever.

What is a life story?

In simple terms, a life story is a summary of what a person recalls as the most important things that have happened in their life. The aim of these stories is to build a comprehensive picture of how people perceive their lives and the options they have, to understand how children are driven into and/or forced to make choices to enter Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL), and how it impacts on their lives.

The stories should also help us to understand how the children and their families build resilience and find solutions to the problems that they face. We want to understand these things from the perspective of the children themselves, as in CLARISSA we believe that children are the experts of their own lives.

Strategies to build trust and rapport

CLARISSA follows strict safeguarding and ethics protocols, particularly in the context of the pandemic. These protocols were sensitively followed during the story sharing process in Bangladesh and Nepal from children in hazardous industries, such as the leather and adult entertainment sectors.

Building trust and rapport and keeping the conversation going was one of the main challenges faced by the participatory researchers. Country teams adopted different activities for trust-building such as games, drawings, singing, and dancing with the children before initiating the story collection process, mostly in Nepal. One of the strategies adopted in Nepal to support introverted children to share their stories was facilitators sharing their own stories at the beginning of the process.

In Bangladesh, the story collectors were supported by frontline community mobilisers who were working in the communities and so were already known to them. Community gatekeepers such as slum managers also played a supporting role in building trust with the community and recruiting children to share their stories. However, some business owners in Bangladesh were reluctant to engage as they did not want to spare the time of the children while they were working*.

Ensuring consent

The CLARISSA team ensured that children provided active consent to participate in the story sharing process. To do this the researcher read out the consent form, taking time to explain the purpose of the research and giving them the right to decide whether they would like to participate. The researchers also sought either written or verbal consent in the presence of their parents or guardians to ensure that children who cannot read or write were able to participate.

Inevitably, given the nature and the context, some of the stories that emerged from the children working in the Adult Entertainment Sector (AES) were very sensitive. So, in addition to our rigorous process, the CLARISSA team also obtained consent from organisations working in the sector in Nepal who referred them originally. All consent forms were in children’s first language and were provided to children on request. Wherever possible, gatekeepers were included as witnesses in the consent forms.

While participants were told that their identities and parts of their stories would be kept confidential, the team removed specific incidents from the stories upon request. Codes were used for each story and real names of the storytellers were avoided during transcription. Moreover, the researcher reviewed accordingly and checked with the children whether they were comfortable with the information recorded.

Safety in a pandemic

As the story sharing process was carried out during the COVID pandemic, the teams followed national rules on in-person meetings, social distancing, and travel. Country teams also ensured that children were contacted beforehand and made aware of the risks they choose to undertake when participating in in-person research.

However, the team faced some dilemmas. For example, following the government protocols and our organisation’s guidelines, we wanted to ensure physical distancing where in reality this is unrealistic in a slum context where at least 30 families share a kitchen and a toilet, and at least 5 to 7 members live in a 10 by 10 feet house.

Many participants were reluctant to wear masks and in most cases they did not have the money to buy a mask. The facilitators had to spend enough time with the participants to explain the importance of safety measures while ensuring that these protocols did not create a barrier between them, and the participants felt comfortable and confident to share their stories with the facilitators.

Providing safeguarding, mental health and psychosocial support

The research teams received training on safeguarding and mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). The team was not only well equipped to deal with cases of ’emotional breakdown’, but were also better able to understand and manage their own emotions too. Safeguarding guidance supported the story collection team to address children’s emotions during story sharing sessions in a more sensitive and compassionate way. In Bangladesh, a social worker was on hand to support children. In Nepal, Samatha Psychosocial Care provided psychological care to children to deal with any emotive issue during story collection.

A follow up mechanism was also put in place to visit the children after a few days of story collection to check their wellbeing. Reflection and learning workshops and mini after action reviews (AARs) helped the teams to constantly reflect on how to apply the safeguarding and MHPSS principles for the team in practice and improve on these processes.

As most of the storytellers were in full-time work, participating in the story sharing sessions meant they would have to miss out on their work and would lose their day’s wage. The children were compensated for their time. This made the story collection process smoother as children and their parents were not worried about loss of income. Moreover, pick up and drop off facilities were provided to the children in Nepal along with refreshments. In both countries story collection schedules were adjusted as per their availability.

Based on the feedback from the children, most felt happy to share their stories and some were curious to know what would happen to their stories. Some felt motivated to participate in future activities and many were happy that their voices were heard and valued.

Setting the safeguarding and ethical parameters is always important but has become even more significant during an ongoing global pandemic, when many of the participants and their families are facing abysmal hardships due to financial stress. Fundamentally, data collection involving marginalised populations necessitates ethical standards of the highest order to maintain confidentiality, manage expectations, and ensure that respondents are not compelled to participate in research processes or forced to discuss and share sensitive topics. CLARISSA prioritises this approach above all else.

*The business owners were contacted for their consent, so that they would allow children who were working in their respective factories to participate in the story sharing process.

June 2, 2021
Shanta Karki, Sukanta Paul, Sourabh Chakraborty, Mieke Snijder, Sendrine Constant & Marina Apgar