When Girls Respond: The Conundrum of Collecting Data from Adolescent Girls

For those of us in the field of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), there are universal challenges. Not least of these challenges is collecting data to determine the effectiveness of our programs through an evaluation. And in the process of seeking responses from young people—girls in particular—we face many dilemmas. When you are conducting a baseline survey at the beginning of a program evaluation, what does it mean to get “informed consent” from a 12-year-old girl? There is the question of how and how much to engage with parents: how much do we need to share with them? How does one ensure that those asking the survey questions are sensitive and creative in eliciting appropriate responses on topics that they themselves might hesitate to discuss and/or have very little knowledge about?

At CREA, we face such questions and many others on a near-daily basis. Most recently, these issues came up when we decided to conduct a quantitative baseline survey with the first group of girls enrolled to participate in the It’s My Body program.

It’s My Body is a community-based comprehensive sexuality education program for unmarried school girls ages 12-16. The program is implemented in partnership with grassroots organizations in 10 communities as an out-of-school program. The majority of the girls who attend go to school and are enrolled  with the consent of their parents. The program, made up of 20 sessions and delivered over 10 months, integrates football (soccer) as a central part of the strategy. The program combines sexuality education, information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and life-skills training. It is predominantly implemented in rural or semi-urban settings.

Over the past few decades, feminist organizations have paid considerable attention to the ethics of research and data collection in order to mitigate unbalanced power dynamics. The challenge we’ve often faced has been designing a data collection strategy that mirrors the rights- and empowerment-based model of the programs we work so hard to promote. We continue to collect data and strive for rigorous assessment to inform our programs, but we should not only orient our reporting and evaluation around donors and other stakeholders.

With It’s My Body, we worked with the 10 community-based partner organizations that implement the program to foster an appreciation of ethical data collection. After all, the task of obtaining meaningful consent from both girls and their parents rested with them. We designed a presurvey tool for parents, so they could see the content of the survey their daughters would complete. Of course, we maintained confidentiality and also read them a description of the program so they had a clear understanding of what they were consenting to in terms of both the program and the survey.

We had mixed results. While the partner organizations had already built some relationships with the girls’ families, the baseline survey was CREA’s first point of structured contact with the parents, where they learned in detail about the program. We ensured that the parents would be involved in the process and gained commitment from several, who approved of their daughters’ participation. For some girls, the program enabled more effective communication with their parents. “I had stopped going to school after class 8 as my father didn’t want me to study further,” said one adolescent girl from Uttar Pradesh. “When I joined the group, I saw all my friends going to school. I spoke to my family again and convinced them. My parents agreed to enroll me in class 9 and I am extremely happy about that. Now my father feels very proud of me and even wants me to complete my post graduation.”

But we had backlash from some parents, who were not comfortable with either the content of the program or the information being collected. In one case, an entire village unilaterally banned girls from participating in the survey or the program.

We learned a lot of valuable lessons from this process. In our enthusiasm to collect data and engage with relevant stakeholders—like parents—we developed an extensive survey that was perhaps too long. We included questions that were not directly related to the stated goals of the program. We also erred by relying heavily on a written survey without developing pictures or other resources that would be age-appropriate, and more appealing, for a 12-year-old.

On the plus side, we were conscious that delivery is as important as content, so we worked intensively with the survey team to orient them to the program. They also took part in the pilot testing and feedback process, which strengthened their ability to better implement the survey.

These are just a few of the valuable lessons we learned. We followed up with a survey with the same group of girls after they completed the 10-month program. We believe it’s vital to share the challenges of gathering this sort of evidence from a feminist, human rights approach. These considerations should shape the field, and ethical principles should absolutely be the basis on which research with young people is conducted.

Photo: Pranab Aich/CREA

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