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Research on violence against children during the COVID-19 pandemic: Guidance to inform ethical data collection and evidence generation

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Written by Amber Peterman, Alessandra Guedes, Gabrielle Berman and Ramya Subrahmanian (Office of Research – Innocenti) and Claudia Cappa (Data and Analytics Section).

KEY MESSAGES

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 that can prevent such violence and promote victims’ continued access to compassionate and effective care.

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. This includes the necessity to collect data remotely. Since the privacy and safety of children are more difficult to ensure amid COVID-19-related restrictions, primary data collection on violence should be avoided. No data are worth placing children, families or researchers at risk.

Despite these limitations, alternative data collection methods are available and can be used to address questions and raise awareness of the impact of COVID-19 on VAC, inform response efforts and better plan for future crises.

WHY THIS GUIDANCE NOTE?

Global and national stakeholders have raised serious concerns about the risk of increased frequency and severity of VAC, alongside other forms of violence, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Risks of VAC are likely to vary by setting and population. Nevertheless, 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.

Research and data are important at this time to draw policymakers’ attention to the experiences of children during lockdown, to advocate for a range of protection services to be available during the crisis, and to inform the design of VAC prevention and response programmes. That said, the need for evidence must be balanced against the substantial risks to children, families and even researchers participating in violence-related data collection efforts. These risks are always present, but are likely to be amplified in the context of COVID-19, which may require rapid research, often via remote methods such as mobile phones or the Internet. Because no data are worth risking the safety of children and others, it is more urgent than ever to carefully consider the potential risks and benefits of data collection, and to ensure a ‘do no harm’ approach.

This 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. It starts by reviewing the main types and sources of data on VAC and offers examples of data collection options and methods that can be used to assess the ways in which COVID-19 is impacting such violence, including in relation to services. This section is followed by a review of the ethical aspects of VAC research that can be affected by the pandemic. Finally, the note addresses key questions on VAC evidence that may arise during the pandemic. It concludes with a ‘decision tree’ that ties all this information together.

The note does not fully discuss methodologies used to undertake evidence generation on VAC, since it is strongly recommended that any such effort be implemented by, or in collaboration with, researchers experienced in this area of work. Rather, it is meant to provide an overview of important issues to consider when conducting research during this unprecedented time. Throughout, linkages to further guidance are given, which can be consulted and adapted to specific contexts.

A range of data sources may be used to inform advocacy and action related to VAC during the COVID-19 crisis. Identifying how the data will be used is a crucial first step. What questions are expected to be answered by the data? For example, many actors may wish to know if and how VAC has changed during the pandemic and what the consequences have been for children. However, it is important to think through the actions that such data might prompt. For example, will knowing answers to key questions result in concrete changes to policy and programming? This issue needs to be discussed well in advance of any data collection effort.

Table 1 describes common types and sources of data on VAC and provides examples of how they can be explored to inform COVID-19-related research questions. The list is not exhaustive. However, it does show that a range of data sources exist that should be considered before, or as an alternative to, primary data collection. Moreover, while many actors believe that knowing VAC levels (prevalence, incidence, severity, frequency, etc.) during the pandemic is a priority, different types of information and indicators may be more helpful in understanding how best to support children and families. What’s more, estimating the impact of measures to contain the virus on VAC levels can be challenging given pre-pandemic gaps in relevant data. In the absence of data against which to compare findings, it may not be possible to understand if changes have occurred and whether these may be linked to COVID-19 measures. Thus, stakeholders are encouraged to think holistically about options involving actionable evidence, including data on risk factors, access to services, and impacts of interventions to mitigate and prevent VAC.