Giving children a voice

April 25, 2012
Raina Delisle
Cheryl Heykoop and Ugandan children.

Sierra Leone endured civil conflict from 1991 to 2002, and, like many of the country’s children, Sia suffered savage atrocities. Rebels forced her to kill her parents. She was raped and bore a child. Her friends were systematically used as tools of violence and social destruction. Sia (not her real name) survived, but she was revictimized.

After the conflict, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. It was the first truth commission to involve children in statement-taking and in hearings. It was a groundbreaking approach, but was it best for all children?

“Sia was forced to tell her story and of course that brought up all these memories for her,” says Royal Roads University doctoral student Cheryl Heykoop, who spoke with Sia in 2008 as part of research with the International Institute for Child Rights and Development (IICRD) into children’s involvement in truth commissions. (Heykoop co-wrote a chapter in Children and Transitional Justice: Truth-Telling, Accountability and Reconciliation, published in 2010 by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.)

It was Heykoop’s second trip to Sierra Leone. The child participation and protection adviser with the IICRD first went to the country in 2005 for her master’s research, which looked at young people post-conflict and how they were reintegrating into families and communities.

Heykoop asked Sia if she would testify again.

“Of course not,” Sia told her. “Nothing changed in my life and it made me relive all of those horrible experiences.”

Heykoop spoke with about 70 young people and many told her they were scared to share their story. They didn’t want members of their community to learn about the horrific things they were forced to do during the conflict. They didn’t want to open up to people they had never met before or hardly knew.

“If there was a process, or processes, that were more supportive, it may help in the healing journey – wouldn’t that be better for the children and the country?” asks Heykoop, a scholar-practitioner who has worked with children affected by violence and armed conflict for nearly a decade. “It just struck me that there must be better ways to do this.” And so she’s made it her mission to find better ways.

Next month, Heykoop, who lives on Salt Spring Island, will travel to Uganda to work on her doctoral research entitled Telling Alone, Best for Me?: Exploring Meaningful Child Engagement Methods for Post-Conflict Truth-Telling with Children in Northern Uganda. It will be her fourth trip to the country.

Tens of thousands of Ugandan children were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group, and forced to be soldiers or sex slaves.

The LRA is no longer active in Uganda, but continues to terrorize other African countries. The army and its leader, International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony, have been making headlines since the March release of Kony 2012, a short film by charity Invisible Children. Heykoop notes that the Kony campaign is controversial as it advocated military intervention and many Ugandans feel a non-violent solution is possible.  

A truth and reconciliation commission is likely to be established in Uganda and Heykoop will explore alternative approaches to engage children, including photovoice, art, drama and other group activities. 

“I am specifically interested in the voices and perspectives of vulnerable children and youth,” Heykoop says. “I believe their unique insights can profoundly impact how we see social phenomena and can play a critical role in creating innovative social change.”

Heykoop will use participatory action research tools and approaches and has partnered with the Refugee Law Project, a national research organization specializing in transitional justice and sustainable peace.  

“I think this project is really exciting and important because it is an area where we just assume what we’re doing (involving children in truth and reconciliation commissions) is okay and we haven’t actually done the follow through to show how we are actually impacting the lives of children,” she says. “Is it making a difference? Is it making things worse? I really, really think we need to take the time.” 

Heykoop is not the only one who sees value in asking the hard questions. She has received two awards from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship and a Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, to support her research.

“Cheryl’s research is at the forefront of some really important work going on in the world,” says Bernard Schissel, Heykoop’s co-supervisor and head of the Doctor of Social Sciences program at Royal Roads.

“She’s devoted to finding a way to bring children’s stories forward and get the information out there without re-traumatizing the kids.”

Schissel says Heykoop’s approach is unique because she’s trying to communicate to the world through the voices of the children. Heykoop hopes her research will encourage policy changes that better support the rights and well-being of children in post-conflict truth-telling processes.

“Instead of being a typical outside researcher who goes in, she’s actually trying to see the world through their eyes and their knowledge base,” he says. “It’s such important work that needs to be done.”

Faced with speaking with many more young people who have endured the unthinkable, what motivates Heykoop to do the work?

“I see the hope in it,” she says. “I believe children deserve this.”