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An IDRC Doctoral Research Award recipient shares her perspectives from the field

May 15, 2017

As a learning specialist for the RCMP, Michelle Savard was tasked with completing a needs analysis for police peacekeepers deploying on UN missions. Her research identified the need for strategies that would help peacekeepers deal with child soldier encounters. The more she read, the more disconcerted she became with the inadequacies of reintegration programs for children formerly associated with armed groups, particularly their inability to meet the needs of young women. Motivated to learn more, and then inspired by a friend who left her comfortable job in Ottawa to pursue a PhD, Michelle now finds herself on a similar journey.   

A PhD candidate in Concordia University’s Department of Education, Michelle, who is an IDRC Doctoral Research Award Recipient (IDRA), is examining the marginalization and reintegration of formerly abducted and war-affected young mothers in northern Uganda. She has been working with three groups of single mothers. One group graduated from a formal reintegration program; the second are part of a participatory, self-directed program established in partnership with a local NGO; while the third is a successful savings group. She is examining these three social spaces to determine which model enhances competent functioning and social inclusion and facilitates a sustainable livelihood for these women.

Beyond supporting her research, Michelle says that the funding she received as a 2016 IDRC Doctoral Research Award Recipient also has indirect benefits. The funding enabled her to offer entrepreneurial and computer literacy courses to war-affected single mothers, and the wages paid to locally-hired research support staff will contribute to their university tuition and school fees for their children.

With the 2017 deadline for IDRA applicants approaching (May 31), IDRC asked Michelle to share more details of her research, as well as some of her experiences and insights that would interest future IDRA applicants and the international development research community at large.

IDRC: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your fieldwork?

Michelle Savard (MS): The most challenging aspect of this research is listening to and recording the stories of these women. Some were abducted during the war, while others spent years living in camps for internally displaced persons. One woman was escaping from the bush with her child on her back when she got caught in the crossfire and was shot in the leg. She urged her four-year-old son to keep running. She was only reunited with him three year later. Another woman is part of a group of former abductees that suffer from reproductive health issues as a result of being raped as children. Another woman was thrown out of her home with her four children because her husband had acquired a second wife. She now lives by herself with her children and tries to put food on the table every day, but she’s not always successful. A few months back, her youngest child died of malnutrition. How does anyone process these stories? As I listen, I find myself using every ounce of energy I have to prevent myself from tearing up.

IDRC: Can you describe some of the effects of your research?

MS: One of the goals of this research is to use strength-based approaches and peer-support to build competent functioning (positive self-perceptions, hope for the future, etc.). When comparing the self-perceptions of 26 women who graduated from a formal reintegration program with 20 women who participated in this research project (the latter have named themselves Women in Motion or WIM), the responses are profoundly different. WIM members have gone from describing themselves as “useless” to “independent” and “more knowledgeable”. As a result of this funding, and subsequent training, leaders within WIM began to emerge. They have created a group constitution, established themselves as a savings group, and are now meeting and planning independently of the research team.

IDRC: Do you have any advice to offer future IDRC Doctoral Research Award recipients?

MS: There are three pieces of advice I would give to students who are considering conducting field work overseas.

First, visit the field multiple times if you possibly can. I’ve been to Uganda five times and at the end of each trip I leave with the arrogant notion that I understand something about the phenomenon that I am studying. When I arrive for the next visit, I realize, I know nothing. Each visit is like peeling an onion.

Michelle Savard and Oketa laughing

Second, be open to other ways of knowing. When I arrived, a young mother told me that she was sick because her mother-in-law had put a curse on her. She said that in order to break the curse she had to find funds to sacrifice a goat. A mind purely guided by science would judge and dismiss this woman’s perception of reality and miss out on learning something really important about the culture.

Third, think about how you can give back. Your informants or respondents will give you their time and share personal aspects of their lives with you. What do you bring into the field that could enrich their lives?