the words Covid-19 scribbled multiple times

June 30, 2021, by lqxag13

Interviewing during lockdowns for a mixed-method research on Covid-19 and Forced Marriage in the UK by Rumana Hasham

Covid-19 has impacted everyone’s life across the globe, and it has significant implications in particular for people with specific disabilities, elderly people, women, and members of Black and Asian Minority Ethnic communities. Data from the Health Survey for England and The Scottish Diabetes Survey reveals that levels of the Covid-19 “vulnerabilities of ethnic minority groups” are evidentially greater. People in the UK are experiencing this newly discovered infectious disease unequally due to differential access to support services too. Health and vulnerabilities of people during the pandemic have been, by and large, discussed in relation to physical health and well-being. Apart from some cases of domestic abuse and gender based violence,  discussions relating to Covid-19 vulnerabilities have not included how people, for instance, those vulnerable to or at risk of forced marriage and those tasked to prevent this crime are experiencing the lockdowns.

Forced marriage as a form of domestic abuse exists in many minority communities across the UK. I have been co-conducting a mixed-method ESRC-funded collaborative research project exploring the impact of Covid-19 and COVID-related decision making by the UK government on people experiencing or at risk of forced marriage, and responses by those tasked to tackle this in the UK. The project, led by Helen McCabe, is being conducted by a research team of five that includes members of the Rights Lab and the Chief Executive and Data Analyst of a charity, Karma Nirvana, that provides a national helpline to prevent forced marriage. Interestingly Karma Nirvana’s helpline was very busy with increasing calls during the first and second lockdowns in 2020 though there has been a decrease of calls relating to forced marriage, which they see as an effect of school closures and travel bans alongside wedding restrictions.”

Southall Black Sister, another charity working in this sector since 1979, did not receive any calls directly relating forced marriage throughout 2020. Marriages were postponed and are delayed due to restrictions, “But this does not mean that parents have become nice and these marriages will not happen”, said the Director of Southall Black Sisters. “The real situation will be known when lockdown will be lifted”, told the Data Analyst of Karma Nirvana.

We are conducting surveys with practitioners and semi-structured interviews to be analysed by using inductive and deductive methods. Analysis of the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit and Karma Nirvana’ data show that 30% percent of the victims of forced marriage are school children aged 15-17, 70% are adults aged 18-70 years, and 80% of victims are women and members of minority communities. Specialist service providers including Karma Nirvana, Southall Black Sisters, End Violence Against Women, JUNO Women’s Aid provide supports to victims of forced marriage, and continued delivering services during lockdowns.

For the last two months I have been conducting qualitative interviews with some of these practitioners. My experience in conducting interviews during lockdowns is the focus of the discussion here. Interviewing women’s rights campaigners and lawyers campaigning to prevent forced marriage has been an experience, bringing in insights to this research on how third sector service providers respond to Covid19 during UK-wide lockdowns. Interviews have all taken place online and lasted between 1 hour to 2 hours. Interviewing online was not my research practice, though this has been an experience.

For an embedded sociologist and ethnographer, online interviewing has been as dramatic as it has been distant and isolating. The drama is most noticeable when participants suddenly appeared on the screen that was so empty a moment ago, and after months of communicating on emails, texts, and messages; then the distance and artificiality are unavoidable as we speak on the computer’s audio using MS Teams, that sometimes thins participants voices in the air and at other times the researcher’s so frequently that I almost felt like losing my participants over seconds. On the first day of interview with Karma Nirvana’s director, I had to change room within five minutes of our connection due to signal problems.

The other dramatic part of interviewing online is that you can see your participants house, sitting area, their workroom, kitchen, and bedroom’s old walls by sitting at your own workplace. The same applied to participants. One participant has seen me walking through the long corridor at home while I was changing room for signal. After such intimate, open and insightful discussion for over an hour, the participant’s disappearance momentarily from the screen seemed almost unreal. I could feel the emptiness immediately. The intangible and fluid connection could not be averted. For an ethnographic researcher this makes no sense. How brutal  this Covid-19 impact is for both the researcher and the participants?

More brutal are the stories the participants told. The impact on some call handlers during lockdown are painful. All stakeholders had to change their working practices, making it challenging for both frontline service providers and their service users. The two key stakeholders, Karma Nirvana and Southall Black Sisters, have totally changed their working practices overnight on 23 March 2020, and never stopped providing services to those in need of their support. One of the interviewees was furloughed, one has lost a family member in COVID, and others who were not personally affected told stories of their staff, three of who had been infected by the deadly virus and all of whom have seen someone within their support bubble to suffer from it.

Listening  to and watching participants talk online, passionately, for hours about the need to tackle forced marriage in the UK and abuse at the homes of their service users has not been easy. A question that keeps bothering is how unreal this entire interviewing process is, though the stories are harshly real.

Dr Rumana Hasham (Research Fellow, Rights Lab, University of Nottingham and former ENQUIRE Journal editor)


Twitter @DrRHashem
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