Research Spotlight

Conducting a Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (VACS) Among Humanitarian-Affected Populations in Uganda: Fieldwork Strategies and Challenges

Violence against children is a global crisis affecting close to 1 billion children annually with devastating health consequences for their physical, emotional, and social development. 

Children in humanitarian settings face an increased risk of violence due to the disruption of protective social structures during emergencies such as natural disasters and conflicts. However, there is a limited evidence to inform violence prevention and response programs in humanitarian settings.

Between February and April 2022, the Baobab Research Programme Consortium—Population Council, Inc.; Population Council, Kenya; the African Population and Health Research Center; and Well-Made Strategy working in collaboration with the Office of the Prime Minister, Uganda; the UNHCR Regional Bureau for the East and Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region; UNHCR Uganda; and UNHCR Uganda implementing partners—carried out the first Humanitarian Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (HVACS)

This reflection piece highlights Baobab’s fieldwork experiences and practical approaches to support the field encounter and overcome related challenges—with a view toward informing future research in similar contexts.

The implementation of the survey was informed by guidance for conducting the Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) in humanitarian settings, developed in 2020 by the US government and UN agency experts that comprise the Together for Girls partnership, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also borrowed from procedures for implementing VACS in development settings by the same institutions.

The main goal of the HVACS was to generate evidence on the magnitude, consequences, and implications of violence against children in refugee contexts in Uganda. Results would be used to develop a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral response for preventing and managing violence against children in such settings. The survey was implemented across all 13 refugee settlements in Uganda and among 4,693 households—including 2,137 household heads; and 1,529 female and 1,027 male refugees aged 13–24 years. 

The HVACS used a split-sample approach; enumeration areas were designated for interviews with females-only or males-only to protect the confidentiality of respondents and eliminate the chances of a perpetrator and victim of sexual violence from the same locale being interviewed. In addition, the survey was introduced in the settlements as a "Health-and-Life-Experiences" study with children and young people in refugee settings in Uganda to protect respondents and study teams.

Fieldwork strategies and experiences 

A strategy that we found valuable involved identifying team leaders and interviewers who were well acquainted with refugee settlements in Uganda, and strengthening their capacity to collect quality data on violence against children in an ethical manner. In preparation for fieldwork, a total of 26 team leaders and 56 interviewers from the refugee alumni networks of the Office of the Prime Minister, UNHCR, and UNHCR implementing partners were identified and trained using CDC’s VACS training methodology.

Baobab fieldwork to generate evidence on the magnitude, consequences, and implications of violence against children in refugee contexts in Uganda

Team leaders and interviewers comprised a mix of refugees and nationals with experience working in humanitarian settings in Uganda. The training sought to enhance their knowledge of data collection methods and technologies in general, and of specific issues related to violence against children and other issues on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Another data collection strategy entailed including service providers into the data collection teams to enhance care among child and young adult survivors and their families. Besides distributing information on resources for support services to participants and providing referrals for acute cases of violence, gender-based violence caseworkers/counsellors (drawn from UNHCR implementing partner organizations) accompanied the data collection teams to provide first-line psychosocial support to respondents who requested it, or who showed signs of distress during the interview. Our decision to engage gender-based violence caseworkers in this way was motivated by the recognition that psychological distress could be triggered by sensitive questions in the survey.

As with any fieldwork endeavor, understanding (and adhering to) community-entry processes in refugee contexts was critical for gaining access to sampled households and buy-in from household heads, in addition to fostering study participation. Moreover, it was imperative for engaging key stakeholders across a range of sectors, whose collaboration was particularly important for eventual data interpretation and the development of future actions based on the HVACS findings. 

We found that technical working groups centering needs in the humanitarian setting—for example, child protection, gender-based violence, and assessment—were key to guiding our community-entry approach and ensuring the HVACS was appropriate for implementation among the relevant communities.

Furthermore, obtaining study approval and introduction letters from the Office of the Prime Minister provided legitimacy for the study, while facilitating our entry into the settlements. Settlement leaders (staff from the Office of the Prime Minister, Refugee Welfare Council members, and settlement commandants) were instrumental in making in-person introductions on the ground and providing permission to the data collection team to access the settlements and sampled zones.

Fieldwork Challenges

Despite the use of these and other strategies to smooth the fieldwork process, we inevitably faced some challenges. Some households could not be traced because they had relocated to other sites outside the sampled zones. Many refugees relocate from their initial settlement locations for various reasons, including employment-seeking, return migration, urban residential preferences to gain access to better services (health and education), engaging in small-scale trade, and the desire to live among members of their ethnic group.

A few household heads could not be traced because they were known in the community by names that varied from those documented in settlement records (e.g., by their children’s names or nicknames). In many of these cases, community guides (i.e., block leaders, village health teams) helped with the identification of the sampled households for interview.

In some instances, household structures, particularly those within shared compounds, required innovative techniques to ensure that confidentiality was maintained during interviews. In some cases, unsampled households within the same compound were curious about the data collection team’s visit to sampled households. When privacy was not feasible within such compounds, interviews were conducted in private locations within the community, such as empty school classrooms or religious institutions (churches or mosques).

Interviewers were assigned in advance to zones where they spoke the language concerned and understood the culture. Nonetheless, language barriers posed a challenge in some zones when certain respondents did not speak any of the study languages (English, Kiswahili, Kinyabwisha, Acholi, and Juba Arabic). Such respondents were ineligible for study participation.

The language barriers also led to modifications in the study’s response plan in cases where gender-based violence caseworkers were not conversant with a language spoken in their zone. These cases were handled by drawing on the services of interpreters, in line with existing practice by implementing partners within these settlements, who maintained a pool of such interpreters to support gender-based counseling interventions.

Fieldwork activities were sometimes disrupted due to routine or ongoing activities in refugee settlements, such as food distribution or verification exercises. In addition, some sampled household members were unavailable on market days, while others were away at school. To address this challenge, fieldwork was planned in consultation with UNHCR’s settlement leaders to identify more appropriate days for data collection. Additionally, field teams operated on a flex schedule, which enabled call-backs and the participation of school-going children not available on weekdays.

In summary, a variety of contextual factors need to be considered for future surveys, while also building strong collaborations with key partners. The approaches and experiences documented here will, hopefully, be useful for future research in similar humanitarian contexts.


This post is part of Rooted Reflections, a special series from the Baobab Research Programme Consortium documenting reflections, experiences, and learnings that are often left uncaptured by researchers in their implementation of research studies, and by the peer-reviewed literature. 

Read all posts in Rooted Reflections.