Real Choices, Real Lives: giving girls a platform and a voice
This year, I took the opportunity to work on the Real Choices, Real Lives cohort study, as a Research Intern at Plan International UK.
Real Choices, Real Lives is a longitudinal research project that:
- Focuses on 142 girls from nine countries across Latin America, Asia and Africa.
- Is tracking the girls from their birth in 2006 to when they turn 18 in 2024.
- Prioritises a qualitative approach that draws on in-depth annual interviews with the girls and their families.
This means that every year for the past ten years, Plan country offices in Benin, Togo, Uganda, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Brazil, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia have sent local researchers into girls' communities, to hear their stories and learn about their lives and their families.
Understanding the root causes of gender inequality
As a researcher with a gender studies background, I was drawn to the qualitative nature of this study. The methods used in the research give us the opportunity to dive deeper into an issue by speaking to people face-to-face, listening to their experiences, thoughts and feelings and getting rich answers to important questions.
In this way, Real Choices, Real Lives is rare. It has a distinct commitment to understanding the root causes of gender inequality, by asking questions about beliefs and values that seek to uncover how gendered social norms and behaviours are created and sustained, or shift over time.
It is also rare to find a study conducted on this scale by an international NGO that recognises intersectionality and specifically, how age, poverty and gender impact on a girl's life.
The gendered world in which girls live
The qualitative methods used in this research provide a deep insight into the gendered world in which girls live. It is only by hearing girls express their own feelings on how they should look, dress and interact in their communities, as well as their hopes and dreams for their education and future careers, that we can begin to understand how gendered expectations of behaviour influence girls’ daily lives and future opportunities.
I strongly believe in prioritising this kind of research, not only because it gives much needed insights into gender and social norms, but also because:
- Giving girls the opportunity to speak about their lives and express their opinions gives them a platform and a voice, empowering them to define their own experiences.
- This research platform allows girls’ direct experiences and reflections to inform and shape international policy and programming, which will ultimately advance children’s rights and gender equality.
A critical stage in the girls’ lives
On a personal level, joining the research project this year means I have entered the study at a critical stage in the girls’ lives.
They are now reaching adolescence, which means concerns around puberty, menstruation, sexuality and gender-based violence are on the rise. At the same time, the girls are starting to find their feet, starting to give their opinions and tell us how they really feel about gender roles in their schools, families and communities.
When analysing interviews from girls and families, I have felt many emotions. From feeling sad when girls speak of the violence inflicted on them by family members, peers and in the community, to feeling at times a little frustrated when girls are made to feel so down-trodden that they are forced to accept their position in society, and that it is their role to do chores and stay at home.
But there are signs of hope and change. Despite the barriers of poverty and gender, so many of the girls are aspiring to do amazing things with their lives, from finishing school to becoming nurses, doctors and government ministers.
I know that by giving girls a voice through the Real Choices, Real Lives research, Plan UK is providing girls with a platform for lasting change.
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