COVID-19 has a major impact on the lives of the girls and their families we work with. Now schools have been closed almost everywhere and meetings and travel are forbidden, can we still carry out our programme and are we still able to carry out the endline research? Albena Sotirova is junior researcher in the team of the AISSR at the University of Amsterdam, the research partner of the Her Choice programme. We ask her five questions about research during lockdown.
What is the current state of the endline research?
‘Similarly to the rest of the Her Choice partners, the research team also had to adapt its working agenda for a short period of time. It has been a challenging time for continuing the research activities, but of course it has been even more challenging for the communities in which Her Choice works. The progress on the endline data collection stopped for around four months and it was just recently that we could resume it. The latest countries where we had endline trainings for enumerators are Burkina Faso, Senegal and Uganda. The participants had to follow the health guidelines by the health institution in the respective countries. We are also very happy that we are also seeing very recently the results of these trainings – successful endline data collection in Senegal and Burkina Faso. In addition, preparatory work for data collection has been done also in Mali where our team has been currently organizing the endline training.
As Her Choice managed to collect data in three countries (Ethiopia, Ghana and Pakistan) before the current COVID-19 pandemic, the team used the last couple of months to set up the structure of the endline report, explore the already collected data and also exchange with the research members of the other two Dutch child marriage alliances – Yes I do and More than Brides. The team could also go back to some aspects of the midline data which couldn’t be explored before and will serve as a basis for future research.
We have been very concerned about the situation in the communities where Her Choice works. The issue of hunger has been particularly alerting and so is the rise of gender-based violence. We have been following very carefully in the past few months the numerous topics related to the impact of COVID-19 on developed, emerging and developing economies.’
How does COVID-19 change your research?
‘COVID-19 changed our research agenda in terms of endline report and analyzing the impact that Her Choice has on its indicators in the programme communities since the baseline study. For our current and coming endline data collection we included a specific section in our questionnaires on the impact that COVID-19 has on various aspects of the life of girls, their households and their communities. We are hoping in this way to be able to have a comprehensive picture about the effects of COVID-19 at these levels. In addition, for our endline report, we will analyse this data and present it in a separate section where we will elaborate on the five-year impact of Her Choice. We’ll do this by also integrating our findings on COVID-19 which the girls and other parties such as village leaders and health professionals in the Her Choice programme share with us.’
Do you have an idea of the impact of COVID-19 on the Her Choice programme?
‘The last three to four months the programme took a slower pace. We will be able to explore very soon the first data with specifics on COVID-19 that we have from Senegal. We know, however, that COVID-19 had a big impact on the activities of Her Choice. In order to be able to have an overall five-year synthesis of what Her Choice achieved in terms of enabling girls to decide if, when and who to marry, we have to acknowledge that. From research done in the last couple of months we know that absolute and relative poverty is increasing as well as is gender-based violence. Primary and secondary schools have been closed which also means that girls and boys cannot go to school anymore, which has a major impact on carrying out the activities of several of The Her Choice strategies.’
Are there differences between countries in how they’re dealing with this situation?
‘In July we have started the endline data collection in three countries in West Africa. This is due to the fact that the various restrictions of the health institutions in these countries were gradually lifted. However, this is at least up to this date not the case in the South Asian countries Bangladesh and Pakistan. Our local researchers there keep us updated on the situation, but for now any trainings of the data collection team and the local researchers are strictly on hold. This is the substantial difference that appears so far between the countries in Africa and South Asia where Her Choice works.
We want to have a positive outlook for the future and prefer to think for an improvement of the current situation. Although COVID-19 leads to a lot of challenges for daily life, I’m hopeful. Large international organisations such as the World Bank, the Word Food Programme, the United Nations Development Programme and the WHO are now sounding the alarm: something really needs to be done in developing countries right now.’
Since the beginning of the programme, the research team works together with local researchers who carry out the data collection, the research training of local partners and programme evaluation in each country. How are they doing?
‘They and their loved ones are doing well and are in good health. We are communicating with them on a regular basis to have updates on how they are doing and about the health situation in their country. They are also very interested to research what impact COVID-19 has in the communities where Her Choice has been active.
It was of course a challenging period for them, but they did a marvellous job until now. They have a crucial role for the Her Choice endline study: it’s all on them, because we’re not there. It has been undoubtedly a challenging time, but my impression is that we grew as a team in an interpersonal way. I personally feel very lucky to work with each of the local researchers in the ten countries. I learnt a lot from them.’
Her Choice seeks to examine the impact of the six Her Choice strategies on preventing and reducing the prevalence of child marriage in the different programme countries. A key goal of research is to determine which (combination of) strategies seems to be effective, and why. The Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is the research partner of the Her Choice programme. The Her Choice research team is composed of three senior researchers (Dr. Winny Koster, Dr. Esther Miedema and Dr. Nicky Pouw), two junior researchers (Albena Sotirova and Philippe Meyer), two PhD candidates (Rashmila Shakya and Nashia Ajaz), and numerous UvA MSc and Research Master students. In addition to the impact evaluation, the AISSR team is carrying out in-depth qualitative research, including two doctoral studies (in Nepal and Pakistan), and MSc and Research MSc studies.