Anthony Idowu Ajayi
Associate Research Scientist
Authors: Beryl Machoka and Sheila Mukabana
It all started with a discussion between the two of us:
“We will be taking part in the lived experiences study training and fieldwork… My best field experience will be interacting with adolescents…listening to their stories… I love stories,” said Beryl. “Getting first-hand information would be interesting for me,” interjected Sheila.
For over one month, we listed households and conducted qualitative and quantitative interviews with pregnant and parenting girls, parents, community leaders, adolescent fathers, and health workers in Korogocho, an urban informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. To gain access to the community and mobilize the eligible girls, we enlisted the services of local security personnel and community health workers. Unlike other studies we have been part of, interviewing pregnant and parenting girls can be emotionally draining and time-consuming. Some of these girls are so young and traumatized. Despite our preparations, many challenges emerged that we had to deal with.
We use this article to share our lessons from the field and things you should consider when planning to interview pregnant and parenting girls.
- Prepare for suitable icebreakers to build rapport with the girls
At the interview sites, we met with the innocent faces of girls who had come to be interviewed. Some gleefully looked at us, while others were disoriented, tensed, scared, and subdued. We saw girls dealing with the daunting task of early motherhood, and faced with the reality of living in an impoverished neighborhood. Although our fieldwork training covers the importance of building rapport for successful interviews, it was not tailored to dealing with pregnant and parenting girls. Here are examples of how we managed to build rapport for the success of our study. Key to building rapport with pregnant and parenting adolescents, is creating a good first impression and making them feel loved and valued. We achieved this by approaching the girls and initiating small conversations while holding their babies. We would ask them what is fulfilling about motherhood, how they chose their babies’ names, and asked about their well-being. We noted that they spoke with vibrancy and pride about their babies regardless of the challenges they faced. By talking and interacting with them, we created a sense of trust that allowed them to relax and communicate openly about their situation and experience.
- Budget for toys and refreshments
Most parenting girls would come with their babies for the interviews. The interviews would sail smoothly when the babies were asleep. However, it was common for children to cry, and want to play with the interviewers’ recorders, tablets, papers, and forms. To reduce disruption, we would give the children alternative safe items to play with, and place the tablets and recorders somewhere beyond their reach. We would also take breaks and allow the girls to breastfeed and calm down their babies when they cried, before continuing with the interviews. Giving the babies toys and offering the participants some refreshments, helped in reducing distractions and motivated the girls to complete the interviews.
- Budget for psychosocial services
In recounting their stories, a few girls were visibly shaking, cried inconsolably, and were unable to complete the interviews. This is common when they discussed topics like paternity denial, livelihood struggles, and rejection and exclusion from family, friends, and community. In such cases, we would follow APHRC’s distress protocol which lays out signs of psychological distress, and how to deal with it. It includes pausing the interviews to allow the participants to cool down before continuing. However, in instances of extreme mental distress, we would terminate the interview and report the case to the team leader who would contact a counselor to offer professional help. The budget for professional counseling services should be big enough to cover interviewers and interviewees. In our study, field interviewers reported being triggered by the horrific stories of girls about paternity denial, sexual violence, and social exclusion. We were offered group counseling sessions at the end of the survey.
- Identify and work with a community-based organization
Working with a local organization with a track record of impact in the community is important for the success of interviews with pregnant and parenting girls. Such an organization can help with organizing inception, community entry, and results validation meetings. They can also help secure a private space and mobilize girls for interviews. Stories of pregnant and parenting adolescents are sensitive and require a high level of privacy and confidentiality. In our study, we observe that girls are reluctant to go out to certain places to avoid being seen. For example, some pregnant and parenting girls do not want to go near their former schools to avoid being seen by their teachers and classmates. Also, when a wedding was held near one of our interview sites, some girls were reluctant to come for the interviews. Working with a community-based organization is key to meeting the demands of the girls. For instance, some girls were only available in the evening and during the weekend. Community-based organizations can help in scheduling the interviews and coordinating between interviewers and interviewees. In addition, some girls were inebriated and recounted that they used alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress from their precarious lives and sex work. Often, interviews with these groups of girls would be rescheduled to when they are sober and can consent to the study or clearly articulate their stories.
Interviews with pregnant and parenting girls bare some similarities with other studies we have been involved in, but it is also markedly different. Interviews with pregnant and parenting girls can take longer time than interviews with other groups. It is therefore important to manage your expectations on how many interviews a field interviewer can complete in a day. Making special preparation for both the girls and their babies to reduce interruptions is key to successful interviews and obtaining quality data.
The lived experiences study was made possible through funding to the African Population and Health Research Center from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency for the Challenging the Politics of Social Exclusion project (Sida Contribution No. 12103). We appreciate the immense contribution of Anthony Ajayi, who urged us to write this article and helped in reshaping our ideas and reviewing our draft.