The specific methods researchers choose to study adolescents can make a big difference in the answers they get. In a latest study Dr. Lindsay Stark, Mailman School of Public Health associate professor of Population and Family Health, compared two techniques for measuring gender-based violence in a study of 165 teenage girls living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and conflict-affected communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
[Photo: Dr. Lindsay Stark]
When researchers interviewed the refugee girls in a group setting, they heard about violence perpetrated by strangers or distant members of the community. By contrast, when they used tablet computers that afforded greater privacy, girls described violence predominantly perpetrated by family members and intimate partners. As one example, 26 of the 36 girls who reported unwanted sexual touching named an intimate partner or caregiver as a perpetrator in the computer survey, yet there was no mention of these people as perpetrators during the group interviews.
According to Dr. Stark, there are several explanations for these discrepancies. So-called “gate questions” used in the group interviews to open discussion may unintentionally keep discussion within the bounds of community norms about violence. Some cultures condone intimate partner violence by men against women in certain circumstances. Researchers and aid workers may also play a role in reinforcing the idea that violence is perpetrated by strangers by focusing disproportionately on public safety interventions like lit pathways and gender-specific bathrooms, while ignoring more hidden forms of violence in the private sphere.
The tablet method likely provided a truer picture of the high levels of violence experienced by these girls at the hands of both strangers and intimate partners. At the same time, says Dr. Stark, group discussions provided important truths about how violence is understood and expressed. “You want to know how people talk about these issues, so you can design a program that both addresses violence and is sensitive to those norms.”