A study of gender construction, healthy relationships and gender-based violence in England & Ghana: An interdisciplinary participatory research with Young Advisors (13-18)

By Nadia Aghtaie and Georgina Yaa Oduro, from A Comparative Study of Gender Construction and its Impact on Healthy Relationships within English and Ghanaian Schools.

An increasing number of studies have promoted the meaningful involvement of children and young people in research focusing on various topics such as the lived experiences of young refugees in exile or the mental health benefits of childhood play space and a number of other areas. However, only a small number of studies have investigated gender issues. Moreover, there have been minimal cross-national and cross-cultural studies promoting young people’s meaningful participation, especially concerning gender construction, healthy relationships, and gender-based violence. Also, while much attention has been paid to changes to the understanding of gender in Western societies, recent research has shown significant continuity in the constructions of gender amongst young people in non-Western contexts.

By using collaborative techniques between Young Advisors (13-18), academics and artists, our  research coproduced data and artistic output on the construction of gender and its implications for forming healthy relationships and gender-based violence (GBV) among young people aged 13-18 in England and Ghana. Underpinning this research project was the evidenced link between constructions of gender, healthy relationships, and their implications for GBV.

Working closely with Young Advisers from England and Ghana and local artists in both contexts, culturally appropriate creative techniques were used to facilitate three in-person workshops with eight young advisors in each setting and four joint online workshops bringing the two groups of young advisors together. The approach adopted was based on the premise that knowledge generation about ideal masculinities and femininities must arise from the experiences and knowledge of young people and that the most appropriate methodologies to explore these involve processes of co-production that place equal value on academic and community knowledge and expertise.

These workshops were facilitated by local artists in both settings and drew on art-based methods, specifically, music and vignettes. To adhere to the principles of coproduction, at the pre-reward stage, the research questions were sent to the Bristol Generation R Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). We received very positive feedback and incorporated their comments. Also, before the success of the grant, we had several meetings with our interdisciplinary team to ensure we had a shared vision and were clear about our aims, roles and responsibilities. In this blog, we reflect not on the outcome of the research but on two integral aspects of this study, online participatory work with young people across two countries within an interdisciplinary team.

First, conducting a significant part of the research online increased accessibility and inclusivity and was cost-effective. It meant that we could capitalized on the creativity and resourcefulness of the team, including the young advisors, artists and academics from the global south and north, to come together to address the aims of the study that might not have emerged from conventional academic approaches. Most importantly, it allowed the involvement of young people from diverse backgrounds, including those who might face barriers to participating in traditional research settings. Therefore, the geographic, financial, and time constraints were minimized and created opportunities for broader participation of all involved, and this intellectual flexibility allowed us to enhance our critical thinking further and develop a more robust, well-thought-through research proposal for the ESRC Large Grant. It has been stated that online participatory research might hinder the development of trust and rapport with young people. However, having local artists with the experience of working with young people and using appropriate icebreaker activities certainly facilitated more personal connection with young people and sustained meaningful and active engagement.

Additionally, conducting participatory research with Young Advisors, amplified their voices and agency. We learned from them and gained in-depth insight about the related pressing issues that we need to focus on, the appropriate terminology, the most effective research tools as well as the challenges that we will face in the future research and how we can prepare ourselves better for them. However, there were also challenges. For example, although we perceive today’s young people as digital natives, we could see that online participatory research approach can also exacerbate the digital divide for those without access to reliable internet or digital devices. Whereas the Young Advisors from England joined the online sessions from the comfort of their homes using their own tablets, laptops or smart phones, our Young Advisors from Ghana, had to be transported to the University of Cape Coase and use shared PCs in lecture rooms in the presence of the academics. Also, we experienced multiple power cuts which interrupted the workshops. Sometimes it was possible to extend the time to try to somehow redress the unequal access, especially in terms of equal amount of time to speak. However, this was not always possible. The different schooling systems for the young people from the two contexts also posed another challenge in that the Ghanaian youth were in boarding schools during term time which made access to them more challenging than during vacations.  Facing these challenges have ,made the research team more aware of the issues that need to be taken in to account for the larger proposal concerning practicalities, resources and budget allocation.

One of the main aims of participatory research with young people is that the methodology helps researchers address unequal power relations by fully engaging youth in knowledge production and recognizes youth as “agents of change and experts in the issues that affect their lives” (Pech, Valencia and Romero, 2019: 4), and it aims to challenge ‘adultism’; the perception of children and young people as second-class citizens without agency (Kirshner, 2015). Adhering to the core principles of participatory research with young people is more challenging within an interdisciplinary cross-country and cross-cultural research team where not all the academics are less familiar with such an approach in which young people are perceived as the independent subject who have the capacity to reflect on their lived experiences and to make a significant contribution to the research process. Therefore, we had regular reflections on our practice throughout the project to ensure that we adhered to the core principles in our interaction and practice and perceived young people as producers of knowledge. However, sometimes it was difficult to minimize the power imbalance and remain sensitive to the cultural context. For example, it was not culturally appropriate to encourage our young Ghanaian advisors not to address the academics as ‘Doctor’, ‘Madam’, or ‘Sir’, and although they felt recognized, as you can see below, the undertone of the statement indicates the hierarchal power dynamic between the academics and/or adults and young people:  I like everything, especially the way you welcomed us when we come you have time for us, you speak to us with patience. You don’t assume that we are kids and speak to us anyhow, you give us the maximum respect and we thank you for that”.

In conclusion, by acknowledging and mitigating these challenges, we can maximize the benefits of online interdisciplinary, participatory research with young people, empowering them to actively contribute to the production of knowledge and help shape a more inclusive and democratic future. Also, the project lent itself to global consciousness amongst the research team, including the Young Advisors, concerning the construction of gender, intimate relationships and gender-based violence.

Find out more about Brigstow funded Experimental Partnership: A Comparative Study of Gender Construction and its Impact on Healthy Relationships within English and Ghanaian Schools.