What is the impact of this approach? Share stories of how participatory research has been used for action.

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What is the impact of this approach? Share stories of how participatory research has been used for action.

What is the impact of this approach? Share stories of how participatory research has been used for action.

  • This is where you get to reflect on your work and share examples of times when participatory research led to positive action for a community.
  • Alternatively, feel free to share stories of times when participatory research did not get the expected outcome. There is much to learn from these stories!

Share your thoughts, ideas, questions and stories below by adding a new comment to this thread or replying to existing comments.

Using participatory research to advance children’s rights

Hello participatory research practitioners!

I'd like to kick off this story-sharing section of the dialogue with a participatory research example right from our New Tactics online tactics database. The tactic is: Using participatory research to advance children’s social and economic rights and comes from Mozambique.

Wona Sanana was established in 1999 to protect children’s rights by compiling information on the condition of the children of Mozambique after the 16-year civil war. The project combined data-collection on the welfare of children with community education to empower local people to take action and to promote improved policies addressing children’s rights. Through participatory research, communities learned about the problems facing their children and were encouraged to develop unique responses appropriate to the needs or their community.

Since the start of the initiative, Wona Sanana has trained more than 250 data-gathering volunteers, interviewed more than 5,900 families, and gathered data on more than 19,000 Mozambican children. The birth registration campaign has registered 11,000 children in three provinces in response to findings that less than 50% of the children were registered. Some villages have started early childhood education centers as indicated by need. Others have provided education and training to parents and traditional healers to prevent malaria and diarrhea, found to be the most common childhood illnesses. Wona Sanana also developed creative educational methodologies for elementary and preschool aged children and an HIV/AIDS research initiative.

You can find more information on how they carried out this research project (like how they designed the survey, how they received approval by community leaders, etc) by reading the tactic.

What I think is really impressive about this example, and many other examples of participatory research, is the ability to engage so many volunteers over such a long period of time! Being able to rely on volunteers from the community is critical to the sustainability of a participatory research project. Wona Sanana trained more than 250 data-gathering volunteers to carry out the data collection. The approach that Wona Sanana took was to utilize partner NGOs in many communtiies to provide daily support to the data-gathering volunteers. 

How have other organizations sustained their research project by engaging and support volunteers? Please share your examples!

Second Hand Story

We were very fortunate in my Human Rights Advocacy class to have the opportunity to talk with a recent University of Iowa graduate about her work involving FGM in the Gambia. She explained that prior to physically going to the Gambia, she had already decided that her goal was to help medicalize the practice. However, upon arrival and initial talks with local human rights support groups, she realized that this was not what the local people wanted and they were very much against medicalizing. She quickly threw out her previous idea and began working within the local Gambian groups to raise awareness and stop the practice at a local level.She later returned to the U.S. to begin a fundraising campaign.

Although this may not be a direct example of Participatory Research, I think this situation shows how important it is for an advocate, (or an advocacy group), to carefully consider the wants and needs of the community in question before jumping in with their own take on the issue. In this case, our U of I alumna realized that she needed to work with the local people who had formed groups, rather than tackle the case as an outsider. I think Participatory Research can be applied within many different tactics at many different levels, depending on the issue at hand.

Another second hand story

A colleague of mine drew my attention towards an initiative by Women's Rights International and Voices In Empowering Women, a Liberian women organization. Together, these two organizations conducted two surveys with women and young girls in Liberia during the first eight years of the conflict. It was their aim to document the impact that the conflict had on the female population of the country.

What i find so remarkable about this study is how they presented their findings in a way that made the surveys results easily accessible to the women they were studying. One method was to show a stage play that presented the major research findings, carrying the results back into the community (see a video here; texts of the plays are transcribed in the final project report, see link below). They further depicted the statistical results of the surveys with the help of simple visualizations, providing explanations of the graphs that made the overall results very comprehensible even for people who are not familiar with statistics (for closer inspection download the report here).

In the report, the authors explain the method of how the surveys were conducted. It seems to me that this project is a great example of PAR, because it shows how the research method was developed within the context of the local culture, engaging local women, aimed at documenting the hardship they experienced throughout the conflict. The research results empowered them to address the past, ease their suffering by showing them that they were not alone in the violence they experienced. I can imagine how this project assisted women in their healing process.

Using art and other ways of visualizing ideas and information

Thanks for sharing these examples, Jule! It's great to hear these stories of how people have creatively conveyed ideas and information to others.

Certainly, theater is a powerful way to share a story. A play can convey emotion in a way that a written report cannot (not as easily at least). Theater is very accessible - no literacy required. It can also be participatory and engage the audience in the story-telling! Anne also mentions in her comment below (participatory research through arts and media vehicles) that theater can be an effective way of collecting testimony. For more information on how to use theater, and to find MANY examples of this - visit our online dialogue on Using Theatre for Human Rights Education and Action. (You may also be interested in our dialogue on Using Video for Advocacy.)

I also love the creative way that Womens Rights International visualized the results of the surveys so that everyone could understand it. I have uploaded an example of one of these graphs from the report that Jule referenced above:

Visualization of survey information

If you want to learn about ways to visualize information for human rights work, you may want to check out Tactical Tech's Visualizing Information Guide.

I think it would also be possible to use visuals in the data-collection stage of a research project. Is anyone aware of examples of the use of pictures and other visuals for collecting information from communities in a participatory research project?

Using Participatory Research to expose non-state actor torture

Initially participatory research (PR), for me, condensed into (1) questioning, (2) learning and (3)action-taking to be done by individuals/groups with concerns about their/or another’s specific community with intended outcomes of gaining practical knowledge to apply to everyday relationship issues resulting in empowerment and human rights.  

I say initially re PR, because I learnt from experience that such a definition is simplistic. I’ll briefly share some of my experience so the rest of my comments make sense. Confronted with the reality of one woman who asked for help because of torture victimization in the domestic sphere inflicted by non-state actors triggered the PR QUESTION: Was her reality unique? Answering this question meant reaching out into the larger community; other women confidentially presented themselves to my colleague and I who were willing to disclose non-state torture (NST) victimization. PR LEARNING meant a specific group existed and redefined the meaning of ‘group’. Group came to mean women who endured the same NST patterns of victimization who wanted their realities of NST exposed without being identified because:

  1. The destructiveness of NST victimization had made them extremely vulnerable, they’d taken years to gather stability and could not risk identifying themselves for fear of breaking down their present day coping strategies,  
  2. Learning over time that this initial specific provincial ‘group’ became representative of national and international NST victimization of women who were generally invisibilized,
  3. They endured oppressive socio-cultural legal and structural forces that maintained their invisibility, i.e., labelled ‘crazy’, told they were lying, fears of discrimination and stigmatization that they would be seen as evil and with no law specifically acknowledging NST victimization in Canada for example their victimization did not exist – no law, do data, no crime; they would eventually endure the knowledge that when their testimonials were presented to CEDAW that they would also be left unsupported and invisibilized.

PR ACTION-TAKING: Under the above restraints how to proceed became the issue; the solution became becoming the visible representatives for the ‘group’ of women who contact us. These contacts transform into PR partnerships in that women share their testimonials, drawing and insights and we take action/responsibility to try to expose the reality of NST victimization, building strategies that provide empowerment. For example:

  1. PR findings took five years of intense listening to design a model of ritual abuse-torture victimization, one form of NST victimization, that represented what women were telling us; they evaluated the model and for the first time stated they felt heard and understood.
  2. Over the next 10 years we learned of other forms of NST inflicted by such perpetrators; it took this long for our PR knowledge to be published which has since grown into opportunities for international publishing and visibility and empowerment of women whose testimonials are always included in our writing as a way to adapt PR ‘group’ involvement and equality in the process by maintaining their safety while visibilizing their voices and NST ordeals,
  3. The PR is on-going, into the 18th year of strategies and building and maintaining PR partnerships with women so harmed, asking, for instance, for input when designing survey questions to expose specific NST issues or asking for their own words to be shared in the articles we continue to submit for possible publication. The women constantly state how empowering this framework is for them because “I want to spread the word that these horrendous things do happen ... it makes me feel I’m helping”.

ACTION-TAKING: THE PR RISKS/HURDLES: When initiating actions to address the group’s reality and invisibility of NST victimization we honestly did not anticipate the risks/hurdles we would be confronted with, such as:

  1. ACTION-TAKING mean how to deal with the ethical and moral professional/personal dilemmas/responsibilities created when such knowledge is gained, for example: How could my colleague and I walk away from the fact that we had learned that NST torture was/is occurring, inflicted against infants, children and women? We couldn’t, so our lives and that of our families have been profoundly changed as did the longevity of the PR we originally committed to.  
  2. As the PR ‘researchers’ ACTION-TAKING mean, for example, exposing the ‘groups’ invisibility, defying the status quo which generally labelled the women ‘crazy, ‘treating’ them as such. This action-taking brought, for instance, professional and personal attacks, attempts to discredit us which created serious professional/personal isolation issues and in the early years dealing with all of these challenges felt like ‘battle fatigue’ combined with deep ethical/moral duress as mentioned.
  3. ACTION-TAKING meant considering how to deal with the positional power and use/abuse of power of some of the alleged perpetrators and these potential risks. For example, one woman who reported being held in captivity, tortured and trafficked for four and one-half years by her spouse/friends before escaping had been silent for 25 years then several months after she started disclosing to us she received a middle-of-the-night phone call threatening her to stop talking. This exposes the organized criminal element that was a constant identifying feature of the group of women who have spoken to us regardless of which industrialized country they are from. It also exposes the risks that occur when the socio-cultural and legal framework denies and invisibilizes the existence of NST victimization.

I share these years of experience of PR because it makes visible more insights into what PR can involve.

PAR for community-based reintegration of child soldiers

I'd like to share a story about the Participatory Action Research Project with Young Mothers and their Children in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Northern Uganda (PAR Project). The PAR Project ran from 2006 - 2009 in twenty communities in the three countries. It was a collaboration of ten child protection agencies, three African academics and four American/European academics. The aim of the program was to find out from young mothers who had been child soldiers in the civil wars in each of these countries about what "reintegration" meant to them, and to then for the young mothers to implement social actions that the they believed would help them achieve reintegration into their community.

When we began the program, we encountered many people - from community members to program officers in other agencies - who believed that this extremely vulnerable and marginalized population would not be able to do research. While it was the case that much of the first year of the program was devoted to capacity building, the young mothers were more than eager and able to research their own situations, work together and with supportive community members, and develop social action initiatives to address the obstacles to full participation in their community that they had identified.

The program developed differently in each of the twenty communities as each project was shaped by its participants. But similarities existed in several areas. Below are our key findings and recommendations. The full report of the study can be found at our website: www.pargirlmothers.com

Findings & Recommendations


  • The meaning of social (re)integration for young mothers is that they and their children are accepted, respected, and included as contributing family and community members. 
  • To facilitate social reintegration that is community based and highly participatory, communities should be involved from the outset and should take ownership of the process.
  • Peer groups for young mothers are instrumental in providing psychosocial support for positive coping and social reintegration.
  • Young mothers’ peer groups are fostered by organizing, structuring, and expert facilitation by agency staff, whose ongoing aim is to shift decision making to the young mothers.
  • Young mothers’ group work facilitates their reintegration through increasing their strength and improving their capacity to be seen and heard in communities.
  • Economic livelihood supports are instrumental in improving young mothers’ family and community status and relationships. Sustainability is strongly related to flexibility and diversification in income generating activities. 
  • Family relationships are significantly improved through young mothers’ participation in the PAR project.
  • Young mothers show improved physical & psychological well being.
  • Unwanted pregnancies remain a challenging issue for many young mothers. 
  • Children of young mothers show improved well being, which facilitates their social reintegration.
  • Gender relations are complex. While some young mothers report supportive relationships, the majority say they do not experience their boyfriends/husbands as supportive of them or their children. 
  • Young mothers develop tools to address sexual exploitation and violence, often with the support of group members. However, shame is still a barrier to seeking help. 
  • Participation in sex work decreases as young mothers gain confidence and self respect and develop alternative livelihood strategies.- 68 - 

Recommendations for Practitioners

  1. Enable meaningful participation, building reintegration supports around young mothers’ own understandings and agency. 
  2. Facilitate group support among the girls. 
  3. Encourage effective mentoring and advocacy by respected community members.
  4. Take a longer, slower approach to integration that builds a sense of ownership by the communities and the young mothers. 
  5. Build staff capacities for taking a more flexible, facilitative, young mother-centered approach. 

Recommendations for Donors & Policy Makers

  1. Programming for the integration of CAAFAG should include specific attention to young women and their children without targeting them excessively.
  2. Economic reintegration is key for the successful integration of young mothers, including former CAAFAG. 
  3. Provide long-term, flexible, inclusive funding for the integration of formerly recruited young mothers. 
  4. Support young mothers’ and women’s rights as part of post-conflict transformation for development and peace. 
participatory research through arts and media vehicles

It may seem counter-intuitive to use the arts towards research, but I've been very impressed with what I've heard about the work Search for Common Ground has been doing with the reintegration of child soldiers in the Congo, through theater programs.  Theater can be a very effective way of collecting testimony, and perhaps the ultimate form of "participation."  The Congo program included presentations in market spaces, where both the actors and the impromptu audiences would be moved to share their experiences.  This creates a different level of interaction than the Western human rights worker showing up with tape recorder and notebook.  Another form of this is the Witness Hub, in which local activists upload videos documenting human rights abuses onto a common site.  There are many problems and obstacles -- starting with verification.  At the same time, as digital media tools spread, there will be more opportunities to enlist them in data-gathering exercises from a grassroots perspective.  (For material on Witness and related projects, click here)

Thank you for participating!

Thank you everyone for sharing your stories, challenges, questions and ideas. It's great to have so many resources and stories on participatory action research in one place! We will begin writing a summary of this dialogue. When we are finished, we will post that summary on the main dialogue page and I'll send you an email to let you know it's there.

Please don't consider this the end! You are welcome to continue sharing your ideas and stories here! If you take an idea and use it in your work - we want to hear about it!

Thank you for taking the time to participate and we wish you all the best in improving human rights through participatory action research!

A Side Benefit

I ran a national survey of human rights abuses in Sierra Leone.  A side benefit of a participatory approach was that the local individuals involved in the research carried what they learned about research techniques forward to other projects.  As a result, the later work was of a higher quality than it would have been otherwise.  I heard that the interviewers for my projects were telling the directors of future projects what their mistakes were!  So another side benefit was empowerment; those individuals not only had developed new skills, but also the self-assuredness to challenge the "experts"!

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