Research Spotlight

Great Expectations: Expanding the Possibilities for Research in Refugee Settings in the East and Horn of Africa

"I’ve lived in BidiBidi Settlement for the last 20 years with my mom. We fled to Uganda from South Sudan when I was 6 years old. My mom is still there." A bespectacled young man sat across from me during a lunch break in Kampala, Uganda, and proactively told me a little bit about himself in these words.

I don’t think he realized just how significant his statements were. In sharing vignettes from his life using these words, he validated our very reason for being in Uganda in the first place.

It was the beginning of March 2022, and our research team was in Kampala for a three-week training session that brought together trainees—a mix of refugees and host community members—from every settlement in the country and the surrounding areas. This was our first week of training, and we focused solely on training team leaders to facilitate the implementation of the first-ever Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (VACS) in a humanitarian setting. The following week, as part of the training process, interviewers and gender-based violence caseworkers would join, expanding our pool of trainees dramatically. 

Lunch break for trainees—a mix of refugees and host community members—who will implement the Violence Against Children and Youth Survey (VACS) in a humanitarian setting

We were representatives of the Baobab Research Program Consortium—an African-led, Africa-based FCDO-partnership dedicated to changing the narrative around the kinds of research that can be conducted in refugee settings, despite the very real challenges that such settings present. 

Over a five-year period, in collaboration with national governments (in Uganda, the Office of the Prime Minister’s Department of Refugees), the UNHCR Regional Bureau for the East and Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region, and UNHCR country operations, Baobab is introducing robust and rigorous cross-sectional and/or longitudinal surveys, such as the VACS, into refugee contexts for the very first time. The VACS are nationally representative household surveys measuring violence in childhood and young adulthood among 13-to-24-year-old females and males.  

Twenty-three countries across sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe have implemented the VACS, with support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other partners that comprise the Together for Girls partnership.

However, none of these surveys have been carried out in a humanitarian setting—until now. This humanitarian-setting version of the VACS is being implemented through the Baobab Research Program Consortium, in collaboration with the Office of the Prime Minister, UNHCR Uganda, and UNHCR implementing partners, who are collectively providing technical support for the process. 

The VACS is a starting point for enhancing national prevention and response programming for violence against children. It culminates in a data-to-action workshop which brings together a multi-sectoral group of stakeholders to interpret the survey data and determine program and policy actions. 

There is good reason why humanitarian contexts have historically been sidestepped when it comes to the implementation of well-utilized surveys such as the VACS. Issues such as high population mobility and acute vulnerability must be taken into account and properly addressed in advance. Understandably, researchers have often shied away from tackling these challenges. 

In 2020, however, in collaboration with the CDC and the International Rescue Committee, Together for Girls produced implementation guidance for carrying out the VACS in humanitarian settings, as a first step toward ensuring that measurement, logistical, and ethical issues unique to these contexts are appropriately attended to.

Furthermore, as complex as average durations of stay can be, emerging evidence indicates that, as at the end of 2018, the average duration of a refugee’s time in exile stands at 10.3 years. This suggests that, at least in some contexts, refugee populations are "settled" enough to enable their meaningful participation in surveys such as the VACS. 

The articulate, confident young man sitting across from me was among the team leaders being trained for the VACS implementation. Like him, at least a third of the team leaders and interviewers were refugees too. Like him, many had barely known any other home beyond the Ugandan settlements they had grown up in.

As he sat across from me and I listened to what he had to say, it dawned on me that he was a veritable symbol of the possibilities in refugee settings. His lived experience of growing up in a Ugandan settlement over the past 20 years gave more than a glimmer of hope that large-scale, rigorous surveys—that had hitherto not included refugees—could now be implemented, at least in some contexts.

Just as importantly, the data being generated from such surveys give hope for ensuring that programs and policies responding to violence against children and other issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights are shaped by robust evidence—and are responsive to community need. 


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.