Doing or not doing harm? Ethical issues in researching Children Born of War

(c) Norman Mukasa, field research 2014

The processes of collecting, analyzing, and reporting data that involves Children Born of War (CBOW) require the respect and protection of these children by observing the ethics of research with minors. Some of the ways to respect ethical principles in the case of CBOW include observing the basic needs of children, ensuring that the research outcomes inform practice and policy and that the research process contributes to better service delivery for CBOW.

Das Sammeln und Analysieren von Daten über Kinder, die im Krieg geboren wurden (Children Born of War, CBOW), erfordert den Respekt und den Schutz dieser Kinder, indem die ethischen Grundsätze der Forschung mit Minderjährigen beachtet werden. Zu den Möglichkeiten, die ethischen Grundsätze im Fall von CBOW zu respektieren, gehören die Beachtung der Grundbedürfnisse der Kinder, die Sicherstellung, dass die Forschungsergebnisse in die Praxis und die Politik einfließen und dass der Forschungsprozess zu einer besseren Bereitstellung von Dienstleistungen für CBOW beiträgt.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2022.61

Background to the LRA war

The Lord’s Resistance Army civil war in northern Uganda lasted for over two decades. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a rebel group well known for its widespread abduction and recruitment of children. In the early 2000s, the LRA used vicious means of torture and terror against the people of northern Uganda—they massively looted, burned houses, and mutated the lips, nose, and hands of civilians in addition to abduction. Although the exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that LRA’s mass abductions led to almost tens of thousands of children and youth being forced to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. These abducted children were subjected to violence and forced to commit violence including being forced to kill, torture civilians, as well as being used in looting. For a long time, the systematic strategy and war tactic of abduction, rape and abuse of girls and young women went unnoticed by the international community.  The sexual violence, sex slavery, forced marriages, and forced pregnancy resulted in children born during the abducted girls’ time spent in LRA camps in Uganda and South Sudan.

 Even after the conflict in northern Uganda officially ended in 2007, the LRA group continued to terrorise people across the African territory. There have been reports of abduction and sexual violence committed by the LRA in DR Congo, and Central African Republic (CAR). A report by the United Nations security council estimated that between July 2009 and February 2012, the LRA had abducted approximately 591 children (girls and boys) in the Democratic Republic (DR of Congo), South Sudan and CAR.   

Although for a long time this category of children born of war in the LRA was widely unrecognized, in the meantime there is an increasing amount of research and activities focusing on these children’s life situations especially regarding their reintegration into their home communities. However, little focus has been given to questions addressing ethical issues of data collection, management, and data sharing in the respective research projects and articles. This brief article aims to close some of these gaps in the LRA case by looking at how these issues have been addressed in CBOW research from other conflicts.

Most of the CBOW in Northern Uganda are currently between 12 to 20 years, therefore most of them are minors. Research on these children’s life situation could harm them, if not handled professionally.  The risk of harm when researching these CBOW is high, firstly, because they face stigma and rejection in their families and communities as children conceived of the LRA rebels—the perpetrator. Secondly, the history of their mothers as survivors of sexual violence implies that the interviews about the CBOW experiences may cause a traumatic and psychosocial breakdown.  Therefore, there is a need to scrutinize the ethical considerations used to study CBOW. This emphasis has been echoed in Mochmann’s more than two decades’ work in this field of research on CBOW.

Most of the published research on CBOW in Northern Uganda has used innovative research methods.1 These include directly interviewing children born of war using qualitative in-depth interviews,2 interviewing formerly abducted women on behalf of their children,3 interviewing members of organized groups of affected women,4 contacting school authorities to study CBOW in the school environment5 and using secondary data collected by civil society organizations and reception centers of former child soldiers.6 To our knowledge, none of these research projects have been compiled into one database. Furthermore, often only limited information is provided on the details of the process of data collection and management.

In the earlier post-LRA conflict period [from 2008 on], there were several civil society groups in northern Uganda working for the return and reintegration of Female Abducted Soldiers (FACS) and CBOW. In 2014, during the fieldwork for his doctoral thesis,7 one of the authors of this blog, Norman Mukasa, observed that: firstly, the same group of participants had either been involved in too many studies. This over researching on this vulnerable population group has been emphasized also by other researchers working on the topic of children born of war in other conflict zones. Secondly, the use of in-kind resources and cash payments as a motivation to participate in research/workshops was a common phenomenon. Thirdly, community leaders were often paid with money to support field research activities involving children. This, in our opinion, can cause a conflict of interest when civil society organizations that provided relief at the same time are involved in conducting research with children and young returnees from LRA rebel captivity.  This is because it is unclear how the standards of research can be maintained when the children studied are simultaneously supported by these NGOs conducting the research. The problem increases when multiple NGOs collect data on the same group and topics but share neither their methodology nor their data.

Against this backdrop, we will in the following section share some reflections on how some of these problems may be solved based on our own research and being part of research networks and foundations working on CBOW worldwide.

Key considerations for ethics for research with children born of the LRA war

Research on CBOW should strictly follow the ethical principles of respect for minors, consider the children’s rights, and ensure that the research outcomes have contribution to effectiveness in services to these children.

As CBOW are reported to face multiple forms of discrimination, stigmatization, and rejection, which affects their identity and sense of belonging,8 9 researchers should meticulously respect researches ethical guidelines. According to Alderson (2014), research involving children should adhere to three elements of ethics, namely, ethical principles, children’s rights, and research outcomes. 1), the ethical principles relate to respect for personal autonomy and privacy (informed consent), justice, and avoiding harm to do good. 2) the rights element refers to applying a right-based framework in research on CBOW. This calls for respectfor the provision, protection, and participation rights of children.  It is the researchers’ moral responsibility not to compromise the provision of basic needs to these CBOW. Moreover, the research should give the CBOW a right to participate in the study, and protect them from any foreseeable harm or abuse, including the risk of traumatization that may arise from their participation in the research. 3) the research’s outcomes need to demonstrate expected benefits to CBOW in terms of knowledge, informing practice, and policy. Therefore, researchers working on CBOW issues need to think critically about the least harmful means at all stages of planning, data collection, and reporting research on children.

Research data on CBOW comes in multiple forms, including personal or official documents and data produced by individuals, state, and non-state organizations. This information should be protected. Mochmann (2017:328) lists several relevant documents for CBOW research such as birth and baptism certificates, adoption letters, father’s military file, and church books among other materials from hospitals, churches, schools, and businesses. The state bureaucracies produce documents like acts of parliament, commission reports, and statistics reports or data. In the case of CBOW in Uganda reception centers, like the Gulu Support, the Children Organization (GUSCO) funded by Save the Children received and provided physical healthcare, counseling, and support to boys, girls, and child mothers to return home. The GUSCO center was one of the largest; it had over 4,000 formerly abducted children who passed through their system. Apart from the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) and the World Vision Reception Centre which are known to have attended to some 25,000 abductees,10 there is no known national registry for CBOW. Worse still, the protection of information handled by these reception centers is unclear given the limitation of finance and the emergence nature of the reception centers’ set-up. As a result, most of the formerly abducted children who pass the centers are not traceable and can’t be followed up for research and support.11

Involving the CBOW in designing, data collection, and verification of results has been described as a good practice. This means participatory research methods are necessary because CBOW are a hidden population. Mochmann argues that by working together with the CBOW, they are not mere participants in interviews and questionnaires but are as well contributing to documentation for themselves or their networks. Moreover, these children could be a source of contact to other CBOW as well as contributors to the development of content for the questionnaires and research designs.12 Therefore, the collection of data on the CBOW needs to go beyond the ordinary gathering of research materials for the study. When CBOW are involved in the study, they can collect information about their own life history, as well as their parents and family history (ibid). This approach of involving CBOW in the research processes may come with opportunities and challenges.

There are examples of research on CBOW that demonstrate different ways of minimizing the risk of harming the LRA children born of war. For instance, Akullo’s study (2019) drew on proxies’ live experiences when she conducts interviews and focus group discussions with participants who live or work with children born of war to learn about the CBOW integration in their community. In another case, Ojok’s (forthcoming) used a highly innovative methodological approach of Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and participant observation in which the “CBOW were not isolated from other pupils who were peers in the same class, as this would have contributed to their stigmatisation”.13 Several other studies like Apio (2007), Mukasa (2017), and Kiconco (2022) have taken a position of interviewing mothers of CBOW to reflect on questions concerning the children’s welfare and integration to protect the CBOW. This is appropriate when the researcher feels not ethically equipped to interview the children.

Research on CBOW as minors or a highly vulnerable group demands that the risk of harming the children is avoided. In this way, the role of Institutional Review Boards (IRB) or Research Ethics Committees (REC) is critical to ensure that the researchers demonstrate clear steps and strategies to meet the ethical principles for groups, like the CBOW, under study. The researcher and the review boards would often undertake a risk-benefit evaluation to ensure that appropriate research ethical standards are considered to protect the rights and welfare of the research subjects.

The field of research on CBOW is growing worldwide. Along with the growing attention on the field of CBOW comes projects, like the EuroWARCHILD, the CHIBOW, and Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, that fund Ph.D. and Postdoctoral research.  Networks of CBOW researchers, like the International Network for Interdisciplinary Research on Children born of war (INIRC) and the foundation Children Born of War Project, have increased awareness and discourse that will eventually increase the potential for high ethical standards. Some recent studies had multiple-stage ethical reviews, which implies they had undergone a high level of scrutiny.

Moreover, the role of institutional review boards can be underestimated. They review the methods proposed by researchers to ensure that ethical standards are followed. In practice, some studies on CBOW have used multiple institutional review boards, namely the university ethics board and the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology.14 15

We can therefore say that, in good practice, the research on CBOW should adhere to the following:

Privacy and consent: Field researchers or institutions of CBOW often have a strong or privileged position, especially if the CBOW are beneficiaries of the NGO or research institution. However, it is the researcher’s duty to respect the privacy and confidentiality of participants and to provide them with all necessary information.  Consent should not be a mere fulfilment of protocols, but a serious ethical issue. It should be a requirement that children consent and have access to hear their views. They need adequate time. If the CBOW is a minor, then the researcher requires written consent from the parents and verbal consent from the child. The situation research/collecting evidence is often blurred in situations of NGOs involved in conflict and post conflict settings. The NGOs as much as the research institutions must adhere to the same requirements on ethical review, data collection, management and sharing as well as on openness of methodology.

Handling data: Given that the first documentations on CBOW are collected or compiled during war and post conflict times, the protocols and funding often dictates the standards and processes. In the case of the LRA, the reception centres recorded information of returning girls and children, but little is known about the security of this data. Researchers are required to use anonymization – such as using codes instead of names or giving pseudo names to participants, as well as keeping information about the identity of individuals in a file separate from records, notes, tapes, photos, or videos. It is advisable to store the data in a secure location accessible only to the research team.

Collection of data:  During the LRA post-conflict setting, most of the NGOs collected data in emergence uncontrolled environments. The place where the interviews were conducted [when the children or mothers are in camps, homes of relative etc.] often compromise privacy. Another problem is that the researcher appears as a stranger. It is recommended that the parents of children under 18 years should be present during data collection, or that the child is asked to choose a friend. The research must be guided by the decision of the participating child as to who, if anyone, should remain as a companion. 

Disclosure of potential risks and costs: Information about potential risks or costs should also be shared with children, parents, and other key stakeholders. This means that rigorous planning and defined protocols are necessary.

Building rapport: As a vulnerable group, building rapport with CBOW or their organisations/groups reduces fears and stigma that being involved in research projects may cause to them. As mentioned previously, participatory research could be a moment to build trust, openness, and honesty and allow the children to understand the researcher’s motives or the researcher to get to know the children.

Opportunity to retreat: Children involved in war (former child soldier and CBOW) are often vulnerable to trauma, flashbacks, and stigma. Researchers need to offer them a possibility to change their minds and withdraw from the study or omit some questions.

In conclusion, more research on the methodologies applied in studies of CBOW and conflict-related sexual violence is needed. With the increase in research and continued documentation that CBOW are born/and may be born in present conflict zones such as Ukraine, it is important to assess the practice of this field of research to be able to report on good practices and critique approaches that may cause harm to the study subjects.


  1. Woldetsadik, M. A., Acan, G., & Odiya, O. I. (2022). The enduring consequences of conflict-related sexual violence: a qualitative study of women survivors in northern Uganda. Conflict and health16(1), 1-11.
  2. Kiconco, A. (2022). Children born of wartime captivity and abuse: politics and practices of integration in northern Uganda. In International Child Protection (pp. 101-119). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  3. Apio, E. O. (2016). Children born of war in northern Uganda: kinship, marriage, and the politics of post-conflict reintegration in Lango society (Doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham).
  4. Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN, 2022 June)
  5. Akullo, E., & Ojok, B. (2021). Researching children born of war in Uganda: methodological reflections on the inclusion of minors in CBOW research. In Children Born of War (pp. 87-110). Routledge.
  6. Serwajja, E. (2008). A CHILDHOOD LOST?: A case of Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) in northern Uganda (Master’s thesis, Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, Fakultet for samfunnsvitenskap og teknologiledelse, Geografisk institutt).
  7. Mukasa, N. (2017). War-child mothers in northern Uganda: the civil war forgotten legacy. Development in Practice, 27(3), 354-367.
  8. Apio, E. O. (2016). Children born of war in northern Uganda: kinship, marriage, and the politics of post-conflict reintegration in Lango society (Doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham).
  9. Apio, E. (2007). Uganda’s forgotten children of war. Born of War. Protecting children of sexual violence survivors in conflict zones, 94-109.
  10. IRIN (2013 January), Rehabilitation centre for Uganda’s LRA returnees to close, 18 January 2013, available at: %5Baccessed 6 June 2022]
  11. Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, (n.d). Children from the LRA and services for formerly abducted persons. London School of Economics and Political Science.  Retrieved from
  12. Mochmann, I. C. (2017). Children born of war-a decade of international and interdisciplinary research. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 320-346.
  13. Akullo, E. and Ojok, B. (2021). Researching children born of war in Uganda: methodological reflections on the inclusion of minors in CBOW research. In Children Born War: Past Present and Future. 1st ed. Editros: Lee, S.,  Glaesmer, H., & Stelzl-Marx,. B.  Routledge.
  14. Woldetsadik, M. A., Acan, G., & Odiya, O. I. (2022). The enduring consequences of conflict-related sexual violence: a qualitative study of women survivors in northern Uganda. Conflict and health16(1), 1-11.
  15. Kiconco, A. (2022). Children born of wartime captivity and abuse: politics and practices of integration in northern Uganda. In International Child Protection (pp. 101-119). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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