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How life stories research helps strengthen our programs

January 11, 2016

“I tell my husband to rest in this illness, to get better soon, but he doesn’t agree. He is so scared from within that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Today he (the quarry contractor) said to let him go and repay the loan and then he could stay at home. Now you tell me, the person who cannot walk properly, how can he do work at the stone mines. But fear can make one do anything. We are in constant fear that we don’t know when the contractor’s men will come and force them to give money.”

Woman narrating the story of her husband who is a bonded stone quarry worker in Allahabad District, Uttar Pradesh

The Freedom Fund’s NGO partners in northern India recently completed an exercise of listening to and analysing 353 life stories, mostly of individuals in slavery or affected by trafficking. Narratives like the one above help us understand what needs to change and how these changes can be brought about in villages where we currently work in northern India. Unless these local residents can find very practical ways to overcome this level of fear and coercion, they will not be able to move towards sustainable freedom.

Our 18 NGO partners in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar support 1,453 community freedom groups, helping local residents figure out what will make the difference in their villages. Their shared analysis of these narratives is a way to make sure they can do this effectively. For these NGOs, it’s risky even to be present in these communities and to raise the issues of slavery and trafficking, and the daily work of protecting slavery survivors, and securing release of trafficking victims can be all-consuming. But ultimately unless these groups can focus on the roots of the problem, they cannot help people break the cycles of enslavement.

Led by the Institute for Development Studies, Sussex (IDS) and Praxis India, the method for this research was simply to ask the affected families about their lives, and what has been important, and then take notes of their stories. The NGOs then came together for four days and systematically processed all the stories, looking for recurrent themes. They mapped these themes on a huge wall chart so that the biggest issues that keep people in slavery or help them come out were clearly identified.

Then the NGOs looked at the actual activities and services that they are providing, to see whether they are addressing the crucial issues.

Some of the key slavery themes that emerged were very familiar, such as:

  • Critical life events like health crises, deaths or marriages trigger risky loans and renewed debt bondage. These often result in families letting their children, especially older boys, be taken off for work in other places – often in conditions of slavery.
  • Access to education is vital.
  • The failure of local government to protect people from violence and provide resources for recovery is keeping people in slavery.

But the research also put new emphasis on key questions such as:

  • How can we improve access to public health care, to mitigate the need for huge loans?
  • How can groups create resistance to the local middlemen who live in the communities and work for the traffickers?
  • How can the NGOs help “low caste” families to exercise more power at the village level and take collective actions to stop violence and corruption?

Now the NGOs are building these new insights into their 2016 workplans, and IDS and Praxis will work with them to try out and document emerging strategies on several of the key issues.

The Freedom Fund is supporting IDS to use this life story approach in three of its hotspot programs (Northern India, Southern India and South-Eastern Nepal) as part of the IDS independent evaluation of the programs. We will also be sharing the findings of this research with other agencies working in the field. A report on the initial life story collection and analysis, including a selection of example stories, is available here*.

Photo: The Freedom Fund’s NGO partners and IDS mapping key issues arising from the life stories. Credit:IDS

*All names have been changed to protect participant identity.

Written by
Ginny Baumann
Senior Program Manager