How research about girls by girls can help reduce gender inequalities

Dr Lyndsay McLean’s innovative research on women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo involved engaging – and empowering – adolescent and young women researchers.

Dr Lyndsay McLean

Globally, women and girls experience gender-based inequalities, discrimination and violence across all areas of their lives - education, healthcare, employment, decision-making - and in their homes, schools, workplaces and communities. While governments and organisations have set out to identify the causes and solutions to gender inequalities and violence, the voices and perspectives of women and girls are too seldom heard.

Over the last two decades, Dr Lyndsay McLean, a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex and an international development consultant, has applied a range of innovative, participatory methods to gather women’s and girls’ own stories and perspectives on gender inequality and violence.

This has not only resulted in valuable evidence to influence programmes and policies, but has also contributed to the empowerment of the women and girls involved.

In 2014, McLean became the Research Director of a Department for International Development (DFID) programme aimed at promoting empowerment of adolescent girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a country long affected by civil war, poverty and high levels of gender inequality and violence. DFID wanted to invest in good quality research to inform its own programme and those of other organisations.

Engaging girls and young women as peer researchers

Inspired by peer research methods in anthropology and other social sciences, McLean and her Congolese colleagues trained a diverse group of adolescent girls and young women aged 14-24 to undertake research among their peers about what empowerment means for them. 

Working in four of the poorest neighbourhoods in DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, McLean’s team recruited 15 “girl researchers”. Some were illiterate, some were at university, some were from stable families, some were orphans, some were young unmarried mothers, who suffered exclusion and stigma. All shared an ambition to ensure the voices of girls and young women were heard.

McLean says: “Peer research with adolescents and young women had not previously been undertaken in Kinshasa and, despite advice to the contrary, we were adamant that it was possible to train and mentor illiterate young women as researchers. In fact, our best researcher was illiterate at the start of the process. She was naturally curious and asked probing questions. She had amazing capabilities, but she just hadn’t had the opportunity to go to school.”

The peer researchers attended workshops using visual and audio methods and multiple languages (Lingala, Swahili and French). They co-designed the research questions and methods, conducted the data collection, co-analysed the findings and developed the conclusions and recommendations with McLean and her team.

McLean says: “Through their personal networks, they had access to a range of girls and young women in Kinshasa, especially the more hidden populations, such as sex workers and young women living on the streets. We also knew it would make a difference that those being interviewed were talking to their peers.”

Understanding the perspectives and experiences of young women

A key part of the research was to identify local terms used by young women to describe other women who are strong or autonomous and those who they see as role models.

“It was important not to use the English word “empowerment” or the French word “autonomisation”, but to explore local concepts that have meaning for Congolese girls and young women,” says McLean.

“We asked workshop participants to draw pictures of women who represented these terms and to annotate these with words or drawings. We discovered that there were five different local terms for ‘empowered women’, all which had different nuanced meanings. For example, ‘This woman is economically independent and helps others’; ‘This other one is too strong – she is bullish and not integrated in society’. ”

Equipped with mobile phones to record the interviews, and given remuneration for their time, the young researchers then went into their communities to listen to girls’ and young women’s experiences and perspectives on their lives, and to understand their aspirations and what empowerment looks like for them.

“What became apparent was that for the majority of young women, empowerment meant being both economically autonomous and socially integrated,” says McLean.

At the same time, the study revealed the discriminatory gender norms, conflicting values and high expectations placed on young women in Congolese society.

“In many families, once a girl hits puberty, she is expected to contribute to the household income. If she can’t help her mother or an aunt to sell goods on the street, then her options are limited and several girls we interviewed said that they engaged in transactional sex as a way of bringing money or food into the house. Yet a girl could permanently lose her reputation simply by being seen chatting to a boy on the street corner or wearing a skirt that was a bit too short.

“It seemed so contradictory. At the age of 13, girls are expected to be independent, to bring in money and to help their family; yet they’re also expected to be a virgin when they marry, to behave well, dress well and be submissive to men.”

Impacts on policy and programmes for women and girls

This data on the realities of young women’s lives has informed the design of government, donor and NGO initiatives to address gender inequalities and violence. Numerous government and community stakeholders also testified to how the competence shown by the girl researchers changed their views on the capabilities of young women and led them to include them in their research, programming and policy processes.

For example, some girl researchers gave media interviews to discuss their findings; five supported other organisations to train adolescent peer researchers; five presented their findings at the British Embassy in Kinshasa to DRC government ministers, donors and development organisations; four were invited to define the priorities for DRC National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, and this resulted in specific policy commitments to address the needs and priorities of adolescent girls and young women.

The positive impact on the girl researchers

The project’s success was evidenced not only in the gathering of valuable data and influence on policies and programmes, but also in how it empowered the young researchers. It gave them the skills, confidence and opportunities to set up their own businesses, to continue with education and to become role models and mentors within their families and communities. In 2020, most of the team still conduct research and advise organisations on how to support girls and young women.

McLean concludes: “So many young women in DRC are ‘written-off’ and not seen as capable of contributing to their communities and societies. The power of these participatory research methods lies not just in producing data that you cannot produce by other methods, but in the direct positive effect they can have on those taking part.”

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