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Making sure the most vulnerable children are heard during COVID-19: Five lessons on data collection from Somalia

29 Sep 2020
Making sure the most vulnerable children are heard during COVID-19: Five lessons on data collection from Somalia

By Mark Gill, Olivia Bueno, Lawrence Oduma

“Playing football was stopped, the school was closed, our parents refused to meet friends during coronavirus.” (boy, 14)

            “My mother used to sell breakfast in front of the school, and when the school closed it affected our daily living.” (girl, 16)

While COVID-19 has presented new risks and challenges for collecting information, children’s voices must continue to be heard when developing policies and programmes that impact their lives. In recognition of this, UNICEF Somalia designed and conducted a study, with technical support from the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti and funding from the UK government, to capture the experiences of some of the most vulnerable children living in Puntland and Somaliland during the current pandemic. 1,090 children (aged 10-18 years) were interviewed between 5th and 21st July 2020. This included children living on the streets, those affected by migration, and those living alone with no family. All the data collected was disaggregated by key factors such as gender and age group to provide additional insights. Established principles of ‘do no harm’ and proper ethical standards always matter, including during times of crisis. In recognition of this, the research was conducted in line with the guidelines outlined in Ethical Considerations for Evidence Generation Involving Children on the COVID-19 Pandemic. This blog sets out five lessons around the design of primary research with children during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular highlights how we were able to successfully conduct in-person interviews while adhering to ethical and safety protocols.

Lesson 1: Social workers or similar frontline staff can be utilised as interviewers

Conducting surveys by phone or internet would exclude the vast majority of children we wanted to speak to, so in-person interviews were required. However, social distancing rules, as well as safety and ethical considerations, meant that these interviews had to be conducted with the utmost care. Social work students were identified and trained as enumerators, as they were already assisting children in various settings in the region (including in IDP camps, safe houses, and on the street), supported by UNICEF Somalia. The social workers were well-trained on how to engage with vulnerable children and build rapport, which helped cultivate a safe space for interviews. They had also been trained on how to use an innovative online data collection tool (kobotoolbox) and were embedded in social service organisations which provided referrals if anyone who needed urgent help. They followed social distancing protocols and used the necessary protective equipment in their daily roles, so any increased risk of spreading the virus during data collection was minimised.

Lesson 2: Collecting only essential data is especially important during COVID

Given the difficult study context of vulnerable children during a pandemic, it was essential that the interview was as focused as possible. The survey length was kept short (between 10-15 minutes) to maximise response rates and minimise any impact on other social work activities. To gather a representative sample, children were randomly invited to take part. Around nine out of ten children who were invited to participate did so. The profile of those who refused to take part matched the profile of those who agreed, which meant that those who were interviewed were representative of the different types of children with whom social workers ordinarily engage with. The only exception to this approach was to invite all children with disabilities who were encountered during the fieldwork to take part in the survey. This was done to ensure a sufficient number were included. Disability was defined as those who had any difficulties in speaking, hearing, seeing, walking or any other physical difficulties. All children provided fully informed consent.

Lesson 3: Data can be used to inform responses immediately

The findings from this study are already being integrated into UNICEF Somalia’s programming. We found very high levels of awareness of COVID-19 (around nine in ten interviewees had heard of Coronavirus) and a high proportion felt informed about how to reduce the risk of infection. However, only 67% of girls felt they were personally at risk of catching it, which was lower still among boys (61%). Coupled with data on reported changes in behaviour and sources of information about the virus, these findings are being used to help inform how COVID-19 information campaigns can be strengthened. Queries about COVID-19 are now being answered through radio and social media messaging. The research provided robust evidence on the immediate impact of the pandemic on these children; only six percent said they had been to school in the last month. Furthermore, the study showed that many of these vulnerable children were excluded from education even before the pandemic; one in four said that they had never been to school. Discouragingly, alternatives to classroom teaching, including remote learning, are not available; four in five children did not have access to the internet and two-thirds did not have either television or radio. There was little difference by gender on these indicators. In response, UNICEF’s Child Protection team is working with education partners to provide access to online schooling for internally displaced children and to train teachers on child protection and referral services.  

The results raise concerns about resilience should the pandemic worsen. One in four children did not have access to clean drinking water, over a third were unable to access healthcare, and 44 percent said they are unable to get medication when they need it. Again, the results for boys and girls were similar. In response to this, UNICEF and partners are expanding the provision of critical child protection services, including case management, psychosocial support, provision of alternative care for unaccompanied and separated children, and safe houses for children associated with armed groups. UNICEF distributes personal protective equipment to organisations providing these services to children. Lesson 4: Early data collection provides a robust baseline for measuring change Just over half of the children interviewed told us that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their lives (55% of boys and 47% of girls). However, it is notoriously difficult to measure changes in attitudes or behaviour in one stand-alone survey. For this reason, the survey acta as a baseline assessment to provide a measure of attitudes and experiences at a particular point in the pandemic, which could then be tracked over time (when it is appropriate and safe to do so) to provide clearer indications of changes in experiences. For example, one in four children said they had been physically hurt by someone they knew in the past month (29% of boys compared to 14% of girls) and one in eight had been forced to do unpaid work (no gender difference in response). While it is not possible at this stage to say if abuse increased because of lockdown measures, the results demonstrate that harm is ongoing and provide a benchmark for future measurement. The results can be used to help monitor potential harms that may occur, with this baseline data providing insights into what issues might be of particular concern given the impact the pandemic is having on children’s behaviour.

Lesson 5: Learn from the interviewers

A complementary online survey of the social workers was conducted to capture their perspectives. This survey improved understanding of how COVID-19 is impacting their work and helps identify the support they need. It triangulates the insights gathered from the children, for example by corroborating the evidence on the educational and financial impact of the pandemic. This survey also provided insights from the social workers on the potential secondary harms that children may face in the future, for example increased incidence of female genital mutilation or child marriage. As such, they can better understand the impact of the crisis, be better placed to monitor what might or might not happen and take action to mitigate negative effects.   As the pandemic continues, UNICEF continuously adapts to ensure the most vulnerable children are not only protected, but that their voices are heard, and their experiences are considered when designing responses. Research is essential to this, but during this challenging time data collection methods must be adapted to overcome the constraints of the context and, most importantly, ensure children are being heard in an ethical and safe way. This rigorous, ethical research on COVID is generating lessons that will inform future work, both during and beyond this crisis.  


Mark Gill (Consultant, UNICEF Innocenti), Olivia Bueno (Consultant, UNICEF Innocenti) and Lawrence Oduma (Project Manager, UNICEF Somalia).