consult with OVC and children at risk
There are three main reasons why you should consider consulting directly with OVC
and children at risk directly:
- Your primary
reason to consult with OVC and at-risk children is to ensure that your project
design is well adapted to the needs of its intended beneficiaries.
When listening attentively to what children express, you may find
that they have observed things that adults would not have grasped
independently, or would not have wanted to bring up. Meeting with
OVC, observing their life situation, and listening to their views
will improve your perception of many facets that could make or break
your project design. Children's observations and views complement
and often challenge those of adults. They serve as a means of verifying
your other findings and help you to redefine your questions as you
consult with other stakeholders.
- A second, very
important reason to consult with OVC is that
children have a right to be consulted about policies and interventions that will affect them.
All our African counterpart governments have ratified and are committed
to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Article 12 of the CRC states that "States Parties shall assure
to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right
to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child,
the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the
age and maturity of the child." Disabled children in particular
are explicitly granted a full right to participation by the CRC's
- Finally, consulting
children is good in itself because it is empowering. It helps
boost children's self-esteem, allows children to learn to take some
responsibility for and think constructively about their own situation.
In addition, it shows adults in the community the importance of listening
to what children have to say. These effects are particularly strong
for girls who are less likely than boys to have had the opportunity
to express their own views. Children - and in particular OVC - act
as decision makers more often than is commonly assumed. It is
therefore important to take their opinions into consideration in order
to design projects that positively affect their decision making.
How to consult with OVC and children at risk?
Consultations with children are best conducted as part of the general community consultation. They can be organized with the assistance of community leaders, local teachers or social workers. Children can be consulted either independently or in focus groups, or preferably, through a combination of both. Here are some basic do's and don'ts:
- Ask parents or care takers for permission before consulting with children
- Ask the child for permission, and leave the child with a realistic chance to decline
- Mildly encourage timid and nervous children to consider sharing their views, or you may end up with the most vocal who are not always those with the most valuable or representative contributions
- Explain to the child why you want to consult with him/her and how you will use the input
- Use local interviewers with experience communicating with children - but who are unrelated to the child - to ensure the child's free expression
- Mixed gender focus groups can be good, in particular among younger children, but you may want to consider giving girls their own space
- Both focus groups and individual children should be removed from listeners that could intimidate the children and reduce their ability to express themselves freely and fearlessly
- Be patient and respectful. Ask follow-up questions to assure the child that you are listening and to ensure you understand the answers well
- Don't consult a child unless you are prepared to listen and to adjust your perspectives according to what the child has to say
- Don't talk down to the child - place yourself at his or her level
- Don't interrupt, stress or laugh at the child
- Don't persuade the child to talk about extremely sensitive issues, unless you can follow up the consultation with support or assistance. This is particularly the case when asking about the child's own abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation
- Don't take pictures without asking the child for permission, and respect the child if he or she declines
- Don't use children's names and pictures without permission, and never to illustrate other issues than those related to the particular child. Each child has an identity
- Be cautious about using pictures of children in relation to sensitive issues like AIDS and cultural taboos, and never take/use pictures and names of children who have been exposed to prostitution, pornography, rape and sexual abuse
Special challenges related to consulting OVC
Consulting OVC can be particularly challenging for three reasons.
- First, many OVC are psychologically repressed and not accustomed to being asked to express their opinions. This would, for instance, be the case of some working children and some children living with disabilities. Patience is, therefore, necessary. Games, animations and real life stories may help break the ice and facilitate for an improved exchange.
- Second, many OVC have been forced to conceal issues perceived as shameful or traumatizing. Children who are affected by AIDS or have been exposed to sexual abuse may be particularly vulnerable to these types of feelings. Talking about these issues may further traumatize the child. If you want to consult children who are likely to fall in this category, make sure that you have professional personnel who can adequately deal with traumatic issues.
- Third, some OVC in extreme situations have adopted survival strategies that are based on making up stories. It is important to understand that these stories are not lies, but reality distortions that are necessary for the child to cope with extreme realities. This is often the case with street children, children with substance abuse problems, child prostitutes and some child soldiers. Commonly, the child tries to give you the impression that he or she is OK in the current situation, has chosen to be there, and is fully in control. Or, to the contrary, a child may aim to appear as pathetic as possible to gain your sympathy, concealing possible resources and sources of support. To understand these children better, you may want to use repeated consultations and triangulation, or approach the child accompanied by someone who knows the child and whom the child trusts. While you will be interested in breaking through the surface of the stories told in order to understand the child's situation well, you should be aware that it may be harmful to the child to confront painful realities.