By Cari Jo Clark, Rachael A. Spencer, Binita Shrestha, Gemma Ferguson, J. Michael Oakes and Jhumka Gupta
Evaluating a multicomponent social behaviour change communication strategy to reduce intimate partner violence among married couples: study protocol for a cluster randomized trial in Nepal.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a significant public health issue that affects 1 in 3 women globally and a similarly large number of women in Nepal.
Over the past decade, important policy and programmatic steps have been taken to address violence against women in Nepal. There remains a dearth of evidence on the effectiveness of primary violence prevention strategies. The Change Starts at Home study begins to fill this gap by utilizing a multi-component social behaviour change communication (SBCC) strategy involving a radio drama and community mobilization to shift attitudes, norms and behaviours that underpin IPV perpetration in Nepal….
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During a recent presentation, I was given a raucous round of applause from the academics in the room for correctly describing our project’s study as a “pair-matched, repeated cross-sectional, two-armed, single-blinded, cluster randomised controlled trial”.
Academics are often accused of hiding in “ivory towers” as described in a recent Guardian newspaper article that demanded they get better at sharing their ideas with a wider audience. But as practitioners, “policy influencing” and “research uptake” are increasingly becoming key components of our work, and it is essential that we also strive to bridge the divide and find ways to collaborate better with our academic colleagues.
As a development practitioner, gettting to the point where I can not only say the words “pair-matched, repeated cross-section, two-armed, single-blinded, cluster randomised controlled trial” but can also just about understand what they mean, has taken a year of working closely with academics from the University of Minnesota and George Mason University on the study design for the Change Starts at Home project, a media and outreach project supported by DfID through the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women innovation fund.
A year of collaboration
Reflecting on experiences of working on this research project, I’ve put together a list of tips based on how the Change Starts at Home team (made up of three academics and two practitioners, based in five cities across three countries) has reached the point where we work effectively together and understand each other – (almost) all of the time.
- Research each other and choose a good match
This is a relationship that needs to last a long time and be put to the test repeatedly. It will only work if you understand the scope of each other’s work and your respective methods.
- Work collaboratively on the project proposal and budget
This way, neither the research nor the intervention will be an add-on – both will be thought through together from the start. As a practitioner, it is difficult to comprehend how much something like a randomised controlled trial will cost and what is involved, so you need to be prepared for that from the start. Equally, as an academic it is important to understand the limit of the budget and the scope of the implementation, and plan how to work with that from the very beginning.
- Meet in person early on
You need to strike up a connection that will hold you together through the arguments that will undoubtedly occur as you try to work within the constraints of a project. Our team was lucky enough to spend five days together very early on, and this time was crucial in understanding not only how differently we see things but how much we need each other.
- Speak weakly
This can sometimes feel arduous given all the pressures of delivery, but it is essential. There will be many tiny details that can only be worked out through speaking and continuously reinforcing the feeling that you are all on the same team.
- Remember the mutual benefits
While academics and practitioners are not natural partners, there is so much we can learn from each other. Just like a symbiotic relationship between two dissimilar organisms, the relationship is necessary and mutually beneficial. Research means a lot more with practical application, and the practical application can have a greater impact if it is backed up by research.
- If you are implementing in the field, find academics who’ve done field studies in the past
The gap between both sides will narrow if you both understand the realities of working in an environment that cannot be totally controlled. This is particularly true in settings impacted by humanitarian crises; it helps immensely to have academics with experience in conducting research within unstable settings.
- Practitioners, be prepared to answer lots of questions
Academics want to know all the information, down to the minutiae. Sometimes it can feel intrusive or unnecessary – but it is not about lack of trust from their side, it is about making sure that the research piece is being conducted in an ethical manner. If the practitioner mirrors this approach, it will result in him/her really thinking through every element of the intervention and, ultimately, making it stronger. Putting everything down ahead of time does not mean that it all has to roll out at exactly the same time. Staggered rollouts are typical and much less daunting than heading down unfamiliar roads all at the same time.
- Academics, be prepared to make decisions
While the process of questioning can be useful and debate is important, agreement by consensus is not always the best way if it involves too much laboured deliberation. In the end what is often needed is a clear and simple decision taken by a respected professional to allow the process and the discussions to move on.
- Understand that you will need to produce different types of deliverables
For academics, having study findings published in peer-reviewed, academic journals is an important output. This is their professional currency, but the process is lengthy and findings are often required to be embargoed until publication. For practitioners, rapid dissemination of findings in easily digestible briefs is often what’s most critical to influence programmes and policy. It is important to work on timelines together, and to look for ways to incorporate both of these priorities. For instance, while the findings are pending publication, consider how they can be disseminated verbally via presentations and/or disseminating brief reports to key stakeholders.
One step at a time
Ultimately, practitioners and academics working together is much like people from very different countries trying to find common ground. I was applauded for correctly using the terms “pair-matched, repeated cross-sectional, two-armed, single-blinded, cluster randomised controlled trial” because I made the effort to learn a few words of a new language. So even if you are not fluent, even if you mispronounce a word or use a method out of context, the native speakers will just appreciate that you have tried. That is a good place to start, and who knows where it could lead?
Gemma Ferguson works for Equal Access and is technical adviser for the Change Starts at Home, one of 10 innovation grants supported by the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women program.