A recent publication from researchers at the Ohio University Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute (ITDI) and the Center for Research on Health in Latin America (CISeAL by its acronym in Spanish) concludes that including youth in participatory research can inform health intervention programs. The study, “Youth participatory research and evaluation to inform a Chagas disease prevention program in Ecuador,”  published in the Evaluation and Program Planning International Journal, also mentions that youth can gain agency and empowerment through their participation in development programs.
The research was conducted by graduate students of the Center for International Studies and faculty and staff from the Heritage College of Medicine under the framework of the Healthy Living Initiative (HLI), a Chagas disease prevention and control program in Southern Ecuador implemented in collaboration with the Center for Research on Health in Latin America at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador.
The researchers aimed to understand to what extent youth-led participatory research methods can inform research and evaluation of the impact of the HLI in Bellamaria, Chaquizhca and Guara, 3 rural communities in Loja Province, Ecuador. Thirteen adolescents from these communities participated in the project, which included training in research, evaluation and participatory video making; collective research and evaluation; and participatory data analysis and dissemination. The study included urban and rural youths between 12 and 18 years old, who contributed to the research with their perspectives about the Chagas prevention initiative as well as some of the main concerns of youths in the province.
The participants conducted interviews with their peers, took photographs, recorded short films and spoke in public. These activities helped to demystify how the research and evaluation process works. For instance, one of the participants indicated that “research can lead to positive social change, and a researcher is humble, responsible and generous”.
The results indicate that participatory research methods with youth can contribute to health intervention programs. This methodology facilitates knowledge sharing, grassroots knowledge and a reflective learning environment, where adolescents can provide insight about local culture, beliefs and practices. Researchers were also able to identify that adolescents are eager to share their knowledge and take active part in the development and social change process of their communities, despite the discouragement that some face within their family environment.
The youth indicated they felt more self-confidence and more knowledgeable after the project. In fact, a fifteen-year-old participant mentioned that “The process helped me to believe in myself more, to feel capable of achieving things.” Another participant said, “I would also like to teach other young people, so they understand for example how to protect themselves from the kissing bug, I'd like to explain [to] them how to avoid the [Chagas] disease. Therefore, they could do what we tell them and take measures. If we don't tell them about Chagas disease they might know nothing about how to prevent the kissing bug disease.”
Belén Marco-Crespo, 2016 graduate of the Communication and Development program in the Center for International Studies at OHIO, was principal investigator of the study. She stated that the most rewarding aspect of this research has been “getting to know this group of youth, learning about their families, the practices in the region but especially seeing and feeling their willingness to learn, their capacity to generate ideas, their strengths and potential to generate change in their community”. Marco-Crespo also mentions how the whole project was a growth process that helped her to define the researcher aspect of her personality.
OHIO’s Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute (ITDI) and Center for International Studies have collaborated with the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador on a Chagas disease prevention program in Southern Ecuador since 2000. The program offers a great opportunity for Ohio University students to do mentored field research in diverse areas such as communication and health, capacity building, biomedical and biological sciences, and to interact with community members to promote social change.
[1} Marco-Crespo, B., Casapulla, S., Nieto-Sanchez, C., Urrego, J. G. G., & Grijalva, M. J. (2018). Youth participatory research and evaluation to inform a Chagas disease prevention program in Ecuador. Evaluation and program planning, 69, 99-108.