The village was, as is often the case, remote – 3 to 5 kilometres from the nearest road. Coming in we were immediately met with stares, our guide, a local ASHA, told us that outsiders were rare. This too, was not unique – what was odd, however, was our reception. The villagers followed us around, tense, listening carefully to what we were saying in our unfamiliar accents. Our study – on the topic of sexual and reproductive health – was a sensitive one and we were to talk to young adolescents in groups by themselves. The village members were clearly not happy with this, and although the village’s ASHA and Mukhiya supported us, we were not welcome. We ended up having a small group discussion with the few adolescents whose parents were comfortable. We left quickly, the villagers following us to make sure that we were gone.
“Why were we met with so much hostility?” We asked the ASHA, the Mukhiya and the few friendly respondents. Soon the story came out – there were rumoured cases of outsiders luring children away from a neighbouring village, and harvesting their organs. Us strangers coming in, wanting to speak privately with children had unknowingly triggered the villagers’ fears.
For institutional review boards, the ethics are clear – you go to a village, you get informed consent, tell the respondent the risks and benefits, talk to the respondent privately so that they are not ostracised for their views and then you leave. We had followed these best practices and more, going ahead and talking to the ASHA and Mukhiya, explaining our study and gaining their support. But the backlash still happened. How do you get data from a place that doesn’t trust you?
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