• November 6, 2019
  • 12 minutes
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Without the Global South, we fight child abuse in the dark

Investing in local research is the best way to reduce and end abuse

This article was written by Elizabeth Dartnall, Executive Director, Anik Gevers, SVRI Associate at the sexual violence research initiative. SVRI has received a grant from the Out of the Shadows Index Advocacy Fund, which supports this article series. 


For many of the practitioners and programmers who work to prevent child sexual abuse (CSA), research can seem time-consuming and costly. This is especially as there are often limited funds and an acute demand for services that respond to and prevent CSA.

Investing time and money in research inevitably means that there are fewer resources for the practitioner’s many other priorities and responsibilities, and on top of that it is often seen as complex and difficult.

Yet, without research how will we know if our programmes are working and we are actually improving the lives of children?

Research for real policy and programme change cannot be done in a vacuum. Research is an iterative process of systematically gathering and documenting information. We do this to to build knowledge and understanding of promising ways to safeguard children from for sexual violence.

Whilst monitoring project activities and documenting the number of children benefiting from the project is important, it is even more important to take a deeper dive to learn if and how our programmes are working to prevent child sexual abuse.

Evidence matters

Research-practitioner partnerships are therefore essential to co-produce knowledge and understanding that will make it possible to eliminate violence against women and girls (SDG 5.2) and ending child abuse (SDG 16.2).

Evidence from research helps us to understand what works and what doesn’t, so we can strategically invest in approaches that have the highest chances of making a real and desired impact, as well as avoiding inadvertently doing harm.

Most CSA research so far has been conducted in high income countries, or lead by institutions from these countries

But no single research group can answer all the questions alone. Therefore, to strengthen CSA prevention approaches and also scale up effective interventions, curiosity, participation and connection between researchers and programme practitioners is essential.

This participatory co-production of knowledge and evidence will ensure that the questions being asked and answered are driving the field forward in ways that help children. By working together, we can help close the gap between research and practice and ultimately have a greater impact.

Time and resources must be invested in building relationships, trust, and mutual capacity strengthening.

Our knowledge is still lopsided

CSA is a broad field encompassing multiple forms of violence, and research on how to prevent and respond to CSA is growing.

Recent research on how countries are responding to sexual violence against children, for example, highlights where countries are succeeding and where they can do more. These efforts are important, but we have much more to learn, while we also need to strengthen effective prevention programmes.

Most CSA research so far has been conducted in high income countries, or lead by institutions from these countries. The capacity for innovative research, quality programme implementation and rigorous evaluation, however, remains limited in low and middle-income countries. This is especially problematic, as these countries make up almost 85% of the world’s population. In order to improve ownership and use of the research results, it is important that CSA research is increasingly locally led, including through south-south collaborations.

These partnerships should be multisectoral, respectful and focus on reciprocal capacity strengthening through knowledge exchange, skill building, and policy advocacy. It is essential to ensure a shared foundation in rigorous measurement, conceptual understanding, ethical methods, and meaningful engagement of young people in the research.

Small interventions with a big impact

In practice, this means that researchers, programme practitioners, and policy makers from different sectors come together with their unique perspectives and resources to jointly develop context-relevant solutions to CSA. It is essential to include children in these partnerships so that their voices and experiences drive this process from the beginning.

Research and practice grounded in feminist principles acknowledge the power dynamics inherent in generating and sharing evidence as well as the importance of giving a voice to the most vulnerable and often-silenced people: the children themselves.

The findings should provide a contextual understanding of the risk and protective factors for CSA perpetration and how best to intervene to prevent this violence from occurring in the first place, as well as how to respond as early as possible to stop such violence from continuing and provide essential support for healing to survivors.

This means that research data will give us insights and illustrative examples of how risk and protective factors driving CSA manifest in people’s daily lives. These insights should be linked to actions that will directly intervention to limit risks and maximise protection.

For example, in several communities around the world children’s commute to school was found to increase their vulnerability to abuse so one action that was taken was to introduce a walking bus through the community in which parents and other volunteers walk children to school.

Research can give voice to survivors and children

Research and practice grounded in feminist principles acknowledge the power dynamics inherent in generating and sharing evidence as well as the importance of giving a voice to the most vulnerable and often-silenced people: the children themselves.

Participatory and inclusive approaches seek to empower all those participating in the research-and-programming work so that the questions, methodologies, and interpretation of data are co-created in ways that are respectful and meaningful to those whom the research and programming is meant to reach.

Links between research, practice, and policy are not always direct and strong, so these partnerships need to be proactively built in order to ensure that research findings are put to use to benefit children. For example, in Bhutan a project to prevent violence against children is a joint initiative involving Bhutan’s National Commission for Women and Children, UNDP, the Thimphu mayor’s office, civil society organisations, and high schools so that actions are linked to local priorities and community needs with direct links to decision makers that will drive scale up of promising and effective strategies.

These early links will allow for valuable mutual capacity strengthening in good research, evaluating the quality of evidence, and packaging research findings with implications for policy and practice that are compelling for policy advocacy and programme strengthening.

Influencing change

Respectful knowledge sharing throughout the research process is an ethical imperative.

Sharing findings respects the time participants have given to share their stories, provides a validity check of the interpretation of the data, and empowers communities and others with information they can use to directly improve the lives of children. Of course all feedback must be done sensitively to ensure the confidentiality and safety of study participants.

Continuous learning improves CSA prevention not only within the study or project, but also more broadly. It is essential that we build a nuanced understanding of the drivers of CSA, the links between CSA and later violence perpetration and victimisation, and the contexts within which CSA flourishes. This information should drive the development of an evidence-informed roadmap on where and how to create long-lasting transformation that can bring about sustained social change to end sexual violence against children.

For example, the Inspire framework brings together the available evidence and practitioner experiences to inform seven strategies to prevent violence against children, including CSA.

A shared research agenda

A shared research agenda developed in dialogue between researchers, practitioners, policymakers and funders can be an influential tool for shaping programmes and policies. Some key questions that research-programming partnerships could tackle, include:

  • How to best integrate a primary prevention and child protection approach that ensures a meaningful and effective process of social norm transformation is undertaken as well as early identification of CSA cases and strong systems to respond to these that will support survivors and their families, and hold perpetrators accountable.
  • How to best address adolescents’ unique needs and vulnerabilities to CSA within the context of their evolving capacities and autonomy.
  • How to prevent victims of CSA from becoming perpetrators themselves.
  • What is the most effective early intervention for young people who display inappropriate sexual behaviour or other high risk signals?
  • What is the role of gender norms and inequalities in various types of CSA and how can these be harnessed in intervention practice?

Good quality research done between colleagues who trust each other can bring CSA “out of the shadows” and onto the agendas of researchers, policy-makers and funders. — Elizabeth Dartnall and Anik Gevers

(Picture credit: Unsplash) 

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