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Their voices, their way

June 12, 2014
Cheryl Heykoop, pictured here with Okot Komakech Deo of the Refugee Law Project, brought together more than 100 young people in northern Uganda to find safe ways to share their truth after conflict.

Telling the truth matters.

But for tens of thousands of young people, who were abducted, forced into combat, or born in captivity, disabled or displaced by war, what is the price of truth? Who owns their story?

“Just telling the story doesn’t make everything okay,” says Cheryl Heykoop. “Truth telling is important, but for who, and at what cost?”

Heykoop is among the first to graduate from Royal Roads University’s Doctor of Social Sciences program at the university’s June 18 convocation ceremonies at the Royal Theatre.

Her doctoral research took her to northern Uganda, where tens of thousands of children were forcibly abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in two decades of conflict. In partnership with Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project, she brought together more than 100 young people to co-create ways to share their experiences with the anticipated Ugandan truth commission.

For young survivors of conflict, testifying in front of a truth commission can cause further harm.

“Neighbours will turn your issues into their laughing issues. Some will abuse you. Sometimes others will finger-point at you. Some will despise you,” says one young person affected by war in northern Uganda. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

A participation and protection adviser with the International Institute for Child Rights and Development, Heykoop wants young people’s experience of truth telling to be safe and meaningful.

“As a researcher, I have an ethical responsibility to ensure that young people’s voices are heard, and that young people actually have ownership over the research results, and how the results are shared,” she says.

In Heykoop’s approach, young people’s ways of knowing and ideas for action didn’t simply inform the research. Instead, young people co-created a truth telling process that strengthens their own well-being and reconciliation in the community.

“What’s so important here is that the kids identify what’s important,” says Heykoop. “In the context of working with vulnerable children, and specifically children who have been affected by armed conflict, the ethical responsibility is so much greater.”

The young people involved in Heykoop’s research are ready to pick up those results and run with them.

“They want to create a video about young people’s engagement in truth commissions, and in transitional justice processes more broadly. They want to be the ones to write the script. They want to learn how to film, and they want newspaper articles written – not by us but by them,” says Heykoop. “In essence, the research is theirs. The stories are theirs. The perspectives are theirs, and they need to be empowered to share that information as well.”

Connecting her research to positive change is essential for Heykoop.

“I don’t want to sit in an ivory tower. I really want to be doing something that’s meaningful,” she says. “That was definitely the draw to Royal Roads.”

An alternative to traditional doctoral programs and the first of its kind in Canada, the Doctor of Social Sciences degree program focuses on applying interdisciplinary research to complex, real-world problems of organizations, communities, and society.