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Redefining my role as a researcher

All names have been changed as to protect the identities of the research participants.

The purpose of my research was to study the living circumstances of female street children in Egypt. I wanted to understand how girls live in the street, what methods they develop to deal with existing societal norms, and how they challenge and shape these norms themselves. In order to find answers to these questions, I interviewed girls in the street and girls who had left the street and who were living in the shelter of an Egyptian street children NGO.

In order to prepare my research, and to prepare myself for it, I had read extensively about the ethical issues of doing academic research with children. With the aid of the literature, as well as my own experiences with street children and people doing research with them, I identified certain rules that I wanted to stick to, and that I shared repeatedly with every girl who became part of my research: “I will never push you to give me information. Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to talk about. You can end our work at any time, and it will be totally okay. There is no right and wrong for me. There are no such things as ‘aib [sinful] or ‘haram [forbidden in Islam] in my understanding. There are no good and bad answers. You are the expert, and I am here to learn from you. Anything you teach me is helpful and I thank you for it.”

I was determined not to express my personal opinions on what the girls told me. I did not want to talk in an overly positive or negative way about their friends in the street, or their enemies, their parents or partners or the people they used to beg from. It was my goal to absorb any information the girls would be willing to share with me, to analyse their accounts and to gain a deeper and more holistic understanding of the many facets of their lives.

Souad (16) and I spent a lot of time together and we developed a very trustful relationship that I felt to be very close to a friendship. During one of our interviews, Souad decided to share something she had kept a secret before. She talked about how her father would send her younger siblings away to be alone with her, and how she would recite the Qur’an while he was sexually abusing her. She told me how, after a long time, she decided to tell her mother, and how her mother did not believe her. Souad explained that it was the abuse that eventually pushed her to the street, and that caused her to take her younger sister with her. She blamed herself for having allowed the abuse to happen and she described herself as weak and her behaviour as sinful. It was during this interview and when she started crying that I completely fell out of my role as a researcher.

S: I wish God could forgive me.

A: Your father should have supported you and protected you, Souad. You don’t have to be scared of anything.

S: God will judge me.

A: No, if anything, He will judge your father. You are a child. You’re 16 but you’re a child.

S: I’m so scared of him, why does he do this to me? I want to die, so God judges me while I’m still young.

A: You’re too young to die, you have to go to school and university, there are so many things you will do.  Don’t be afraid of anyone. I love you so much and I respect you so much.

Instead of solely absorbing and analysing Souad’s story, I intervened using a determined and patronising (“You are a child”) language. I did not plan to do so but I did not prevent it from happening either. It would in fact have contradicted my manner of interacting with Souad as the human I am and the friend I had become to her. When I later reflected about this incident, I realised that my very instinctive intervention did not harm the relationship between Souad and myself. It rather contributed to developing close emotional ties with her which substantially and positively affected our relationship of trust.

This and other experiences brought me to redefine my own understanding of my role as a researcher. I became aware that it was fine to laugh and cry and disagree with the children, that this behaviour gave me more credibility in front of the girls and that it allowed our relationships to become very real and close. These closer ties with the girls also had a substantial effect on the research: The research participants became more and more interested and involved in the research process itself, and very eager to contribute to it. And so, although my methods were not errorless, I was comfortable conducting research in this way, in a way that was meaningful to me and to the children participating in it.

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