Unpacking guidance to inform ethical data collection and evidence generation
(14 October 2020) A new publication produced jointly by UNICEF Innocenti and UNICEF Data and Analytics provides guidance on ethical data collection and research on violence against children in the context of COVID-19 and beyond.
We sat down (virtually) with one of UNICEF Innocenti’s researchers involved in producing this research guidance, Alessandra Guedes, Gender and Development Research Manager, to discuss what this publication is about, why it has been produced and what the key messages from the publication are.
1. How did this guidance note come about and why is it important especially in the context of COVID-19?
Those of us working in violence prevention, realized early in the pandemic that measures necessary to contain COVID-19, while essential, were likely to increase risks of violence against children (and against women). Immediate concerns relate to the increased vulnerabilities of children as a consequence of stay-at-home orders, school closures, economic pressures placed on families, and limited access to support services. We are eager to understand how levels of violence were changing so that this evidence can be used to guide policy and programming, ultimately preventing such violence from taking place. Nonetheless, collecting data on individuals’ direct experience of violence presents ethical and methodological challenges that can be exacerbated during the pandemic both because of the need to collect data remotely and as result of the COVID-19 crisis itself which may limit vital referral and response efforts.
We produced this document to encourage those commissioning or undertaking VAC research to prioritize the generation of sound and actionable data that can lead to immediate policy and programmatic change and improve children’s and families’ wellbeing. We also hope that this document will outline how existing data sets and alternative data collection methods can be employed until lockdowns are lifted and support services are back in place, making in-person data collection on the experience of violence feasible.
2. What is the purpose of the guidance note?
This guidance note is meant to serve as a simple guide to inform decisions related to VAC data collection and evidence generation during and after the COVID-19 crisis, and complements other resources focusing on violence against women. We start by reviewing the main types and sources of data on VAC and offer data collection options that can be used to assess how COVID-19 is impacting such violence, including changes in the availability of services for survivors. This section is followed by a review of the ethical aspects of VAC research that can be affected by the pandemic. Finally, we address key questions on VAC evidence that may arise during the pandemic. We tie all of this information together by offering readers a ‘decision tree’. Throughout the note, we highlight the importance of having clarity about how the evidence produced will be used to improve policies and programs, suggesting that the risks inherent in undertaking research on violence during COVID-19 be carefully studied in relation to the potential benefits of the data produced.
3. What ethical considerations should be taken when collecting data on violence against children?
“It is essential to adhere to well-established and standard principles and protocols for ensuring the safety and confidentiality of participants and researchers.”
Collecting primary data from children or caregivers on the experience of violence presents ethical, safety and methodological challenges that can be exacerbated during the pandemic. Table 2 of our guidance note summarizes critical issues that may arise when asking questions about children’s experiences of violence under normal circumstances and outlines how these can be affected during remote data collection and pandemic conditions. For example, the ability to ensure privacy and confidentiality is a requirement for asking sensitive questions, including about direct experiences of violence. This includes privacy and confidentiality of both direct verbal communication as well as data and communication related to the study (such as consent forms, text messages, etc.). When collecting data remotely (for example, via telephone), it is challenging to ensure privacy if researchers are unable to confirm where participants are responding to questions, or to observe interruptions that would require halting an interview. Additionally, in quarantine situations, especially in crowded dwellings, conversations may be easily overheard, screens monitored, and technology shared among family members.
The guidance note emphasizes that, regardless of the type and purpose of VAC data collection, it is essential to adhere to well-established and standard principles and protocols for ensuring the safety and confidentiality of participants and researchers and the quality of the data produced. The need for evidence must always be balanced against the substantial risks to children, families and even researchers participating in violence-related data collection efforts.
4. What types and sources of data on VAC can be applied to generating evidence during COVID-19?
"A key recommendation of our guidance note is that VAC-related evidence generation and data collection be carried out by, or in collaboration with, researchers with prior experience in VAC."
In table 1 of the guidance note, we outline various types and sources of VAC data and provide examples of how these are being used during COVID-19, ranging from efforts to understand how services for survivors are being affected by the pandemic to those using social media data to shed light on public opinion, interest or attention to VAC. It also provides examples of how existing data sets may be analysed to shed light on the potential impact of COVID-19 on levels of different forms of violence against children. For example, UNICEF and academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are using existing data from Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) to model how COVID-19 measures might have changed children’s exposure to violent discipline. This follows the development of a conceptual framework that combines exposures, outcomes and the potential effects of COVID-19. A key recommendation of our guidance note is that VAC-related evidence generation and data collection be carried out by, or in collaboration with, researchers with prior experience in VAC.
5. What are the key recommendations from this publication and what is next for research on VAC in this context?
Evidence on violence against children (VAC) can play a crucial role in uncovering and understanding increased risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can also guide policy and programming to prevent such violence and promote victims’ continued access to compassionate and effective care.
Since the privacy and safety of children are more difficult to ensure amid COVID-19-related restrictions, primary data collection on individual’s direct experience of violence should be avoided. Nonetheless, it is possible and advisable to generate evidence that allows us to begin to understand how measures to contain COVID-19 are impacting violence-related services and how to improve victims’ access to support. Researchers and those commissioning research have an obligation to ensure that the data generated will be actionable and used to improve children’s lives and that children’s, families’ and researchers’ safety will not be compromised.
Despite these challenges, it is feasible and indeed imperative, that we look for creative ways to use available evidence and alternative data collection methods to raise awareness of the impact of COVID-19 on VAC, inform response efforts and better plan for future crises.
Download the publication: Research on Violence against Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Guidance to inform ethical data collection and evidence generation
Note: The publication: Research on Violence against Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Guidance to inform ethical data collection and evidence generation is a collaboration between UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti and the Data and Analytics Section, Division of Data, Analytics, Planning and Monitoring. It was conceptualized and written by Amber Peterman (independent consultant), Gabrielle Berman, Alessandra Guedes and Ramya Subrahmanian (Office of Research – Innocenti) and Claudia Cappa (Data and Analytics Section).