The Our Voices University Network: lessons from our network activities

Posted: Tue Nov, 2023

Author: Beckett, H., Biffi, E., Carriera, L., Cody, C., Dartnall, E., Dolan, P., Fernanda Fix Canas, L.,. Kavenagh, M., Maternowska, M. C., Mathew, L.A., Nathi, C., Nyakambangwe,T., Papadakaki, M., Pearce, J., Soares, C., Wagman, J., Warrington, C.


The Our Voices University Network (OVUN) started in 2019 with support from Oak Foundation, the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, and the University of Bedfordshire. OVUN is one of two strands of work within ‘Our Voices III’. It was established to facilitate links between academics around the globe working on participatory research addressing the prevention and response to sexual violence against children. OVUN provided a platform for researchers to share ideas and resources and to explore how to safely and ethically involve children and young people in research on sexual violence.

Why was OVUN needed?

It was recognised that there was little, if any, space for academics from around the world to work together to explore the nuances of this work, including questions of whether researchers work alone or in partnerships with other professionals and/or young people, how they collect and analyse data and how to create accessible outputs for dissemination for children, families, policy makers and other academics. It was also acknowledged that there was need to recognise and work with the power dynamics between academics living in resource-poor environments or in contexts with little political will to address sexual violence against children, and academics living in countries where the state infrastructure does attempt to formally recognise the need for child protection and safeguarding children’s arrangements.

Since 2019, OVUN has developed its own form and voice, some of which reflects these original aims, but other objectives emerged organically from participants and partnerships.

OVUN form and function

An OVUN ‘leadership team’ was established comprising researchers interested in work on sexual violence against children. The composition shifted slightly over time but essentially included PhD students, lead research-practitioners from INGOs/NGOs, professors, associate professors and other academics leading research into sexual violence against children from different countries around the world. The leadership team, created through voluntary contributions from interested practitioners, was collaborative, purposefully non-hierarchical and met online quarterly between 2019 and 2023. Specific sub themes of work developed to reflect the interest of leadership team members, including the following topics:

  • Youth Participation: This involved a number of meetings, creating a blog, organising a small group discussion on the participation of boys and young men in research on sexual violence and a webinar on working with, or being a part of, youth advisory groups.
  • Post Graduate Forum: This forum occurred bi-monthly and is a space for doctoral researchers, working on issues related to the sexual violence against children and young people, to come together to share progress, challenges, experiences, and ideas and to hear from experts in the field. Several blogs have been shared about the Forum and an output is currently being developed to share some of the key learning from the group.
  • ‘Consent to sexual activity’: This was a working group who had regular meetings on the topic, created a blog and ran a webinar on ‘consent to sexual activity’.
  • Preventing and responding to sexual violence in schools: This group met to contribute to a roundtable event on supporting parents in schools in Italy.
Leadership team

Image 1: OVUN Leadership Team

Reflections of the successes and challenges

We share some thoughts here of the successes and challenges of running such a network, reflecting on the power of supporting and exchanging practitioners and researchers working in the complex, messy and often politically charged space addressing sexual violence affecting children. The reflections came from leadership team feedback to specific questions with the responses identified under the subheadings below. [1]

Why leadership team members wanted to get involved

The OVUN provided an exciting platform for discussion and exchange with other researchers from around the world who worked on sexual violence against children. This was both to share information and learn from each other but also to have the opportunity to build joint research bids and joint writing opportunities.

I need to be in touch with people who have knowledge of the international field, to look at different important ideas that prevail in the international realm and having interactions with people who deal with this subject. I want to be with like-minded research-practitioners, learning from others, being part of the knowledge exchange between and across different projects, programs and areas of interest. It was excellent to have progressive and forward thinking in our field that was not bound by institutional issues. (LT2)

I wanted international exchange: working on this field and wanted to have idea of tools and practices for this topic. Definitely as an academic, I wanted contacts to build projects to build research and writing. Wanted to write together and get more information about what we are each doing in other places. I did meet people and learnt a lot and views were open to other aspects in other areas. [We] got into ethics for example which were not before part of the work. I have opened the topic in my ongoing and future work which now has sexual violence as a form of violence affecting children alongside other injuries. (LT1)

There is/was a real appetite for individuals to connect across country and cultural contexts – the maintenance of communication between the group over three years is itself a real win – providing new links/ new knowledge about different individuals and fields of work and a basis for new partnerships in the future? The global reach of the network also felt impressive. (LT6)

There was also a desire to be part of supporting ongoing research and exchanging ideas of how to manage the complexities of the work. Members wanted to be more closely connected to the work of the Safer Young Lives Research Centre, drawing on the developed skills in participatory research and the ongoing learning and the work of the Young Researchers Advisory Panel (YRAP). The collegiate nature of a closed leadership team allowed members to create a feeling of trust where difficult topics could be discussed if needed.

I really liked meeting other practitioners. Liked getting to know the Bedfordshire team and joined because of recognition of their previous work: good to know people you can trust in the field. Learning from others was great with good knowledge exchange on topics and process. Very democratic, flexible, and nurturing. Being with progressive people who are like minded, [and I] didn’t feel bound by institutional issues or the donors. (LT3)

Post it notes

Image 2: Sticky notes

Positive outcomes

The leadership team reflected on the positive outcomes from their work. These included the learning from the culmination of all events focusing specifically on sexual violence against children was a strong positive outcome.

I feel I have been part of a group focusing on child sexual abuse amongst children: the work before the webinar happened (on the age of consent to sexual activity) a lot of relevant thoughts come up. We did maintain the original focus and brought in many responses from different places: particularly India: very important. (LT2)

In 2022, several members of OVUN conducted a successful pre-conference workshop at the 2022 SVRI Forum held in Mexico. The workshop, addressed involving children in research on sexual violence, was highly rated by participants as being both practical and innovative. A long-term consultancy with an international NGO attending the session resulted for one OVUN member. And other participants have since tapped into the OVUN expertise.

The Post Graduate Forum noted that their meetings proved a valuable space for sharing learning and for students to build confidence to explore the nuances of researching with and for children impacted by sexual violence. This group of students are keen to keep the forum going after the existing funding comes to an end.

There is an appetite to keep it going. For the short term we will keep it loosely under existing arrangement, then have a rolling chair to keep it going. It is the only forum that focuses on sexual violence and participation. (LT5)

The PhD Forum and Youth Advisory Webinar have been incredibly rich. (LT6)

In addition to the learning from regular ongoing working groups such as the Post Graduate Forum, the leadership team noted the advantage of flexible collaborative working which resulted in spontaneous working groups creating new ideas for areas of work.

We also tried to have smaller more focussed discussions with network members, eg the boys discussion which came out as an issue after one of the webinars and the youth advisory group webinar that came out of discussion with leadership team. These appeared to work quite well as one off things rather than trying to engage over sustained periods of time maybe? ( LT6)


Covid 19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges for all researchers, including those committed to understanding and preventing sexual violence against children.

Lockdowns and social distancing measures meant children were confined to their homes and college and university students had to return to (or remain in) their homes. Thus, many were unable to have time away from potential perpetrators, both increasing their risk for abuse and challenging researchers’ and support services ability to access them. The isolation and limited social interaction also made it challenging for researchers (as well as social welfare advocates) to identify and report incidents of abuse. The pandemic also contributed to a redirection of resources and attention toward the healthcare crisis. While this shift was warranted, it led to a reduction in funding and support for violence-focused research and programming, including protection of children and other survivors. Closures of educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, also had a profound impact on this field. Schools not only serve as places of learning but also as spaces where youth can disclose abuse to trusted adults. With schools closed, a critical channel for identifying and addressing child sexual abuse was severely disrupted. (LT8)

I’m conscious that when the focus shifted away from participation specifically, I felt I had less to offer and was unclear about my place in the work – but that’s very personal – and I recognise that there was real integrity in the network responding to the interests of members – though equally the challenge is then to genuinely foster the shared sense of ownership and responsibility for the work that takes it forward – maybe this was particularly challenging through Covid? (LT6)


Time is often scant for academics and researchers, so efforts to maximise the value to those engaged by OVUN were a priority.

In reality those working in academia are already overworked and overstretched and don’t necessarily have the time to commit to unpaid pieces of work that are not firmly connected to their goals. (LT1)

. . . finding academics who have time to think and write; I didn’t have time to write a blog and full of regret that didn’t do blog : finding people who are interested in writing and sharing ideas and who have time. More people should be brought into the network. (LT2)

An additional notable challenge faced by the leadership team has been the geographic dispersion of its members across different time zones. Despite our efforts to hold regularly scheduled online meetings, the wide diversity of all of our time zones has precluded our ability to find a universally convenient meeting time. Meetings were planned to suit the majority of leadership team members but this excluded one who lived in a time zone that meant it was difficult to attend:

I have not been able to join discussions because of the time differences.

While the solution to this is to vary the time of meetings, the result is that developing a collegiate integrated group who get to know each other well is challenging.


Specific areas of focus were defined and pursued by the leadership team members, which meant that fewer people from the broad target population participated. Those who did choose to engage did so deeply with a strong focus on the work. This taught us that although the engagement of others might be limited, there were advantages in maintaining a specific focus within the leadership team on sexual violence against children.

In year 1 the focus was on getting the leadership team to identify themes and topics and strategies to engage. We wanted the activities to be led by them … it was hard to gather interest around these quite specific topics rather than say focussing on more ‘cross cutting themes’ e.g. ethics, methods etc (which interestingly, I think the PhD forum overcame, partly because very quickly the members recognised there were specificities in terms of the topics of their PhDs that would not be of interest to everyone so there was a quick move to looking at cross cutting issues, ethics, participation, analysis, dissemination etc and also in some ways, despite many of the students also working, they seemed to make time to for example prepare slides and lead sections of the discussion). (LT 4)

The focus on sexual violence against children allowed academics to explore the impact of the emotional burden on their well-being and productivity. This quote notes that the demands on academics can limit the:

… opportunities for research-related activities. Additionally, uncertainties in funding, strains on mental health and well-being, and challenges in maintaining collaborations all exacerbated an already disrupted environment. (LT8)

As the work progressed, other possible areas for focus emerged that remain open for exploration:

We divided into groups and worked on certain topics: perhaps they were broad topics: was helpful to be in broad topics but there were other specific areas that we didn’t have the chance to focus on the other specific areas. Other topics could have been: in Greece there is a group with prosecutors and police to run a conference like MARAC: searching for people to collaborate in UK to see how can use this experience to do something in Greece: need experts to guide this. Nearly all cases come to the university lab which has now become the centre of therapy as a pilot across Greece. Justice connection is one important area, screenings, risk assessments, penal mediation process as perpetrators don’t go to trial for three years if they attend the perpetrator programme. Would be helpful to have a focus on this, and guide Maria to other contacts and also if it could be part of next stage. (LT1)


Language justice continues to be a significant and underdeveloped concept and practice, impeding equitable exchange of knowledge and practice. Meetings were conducted exclusively in English (without interpretation or translation services). This serves as an obstacle to the inclusion of non-English speakers within our group. Language barriers can hinder effective communication, limiting the meaningful participation of members who may not be proficient in English.

The meetings between the OVUN leadership team, and any related other actives were held online using the English language. This by default excluded those who do not speak English and who did not have access to computer equipment for online meetings. If other networks are being developed, the question of access to equipment and funding for interpreters would be important consideration to address in the outset. (LT7)


The long-term sustainability of this work requires time commitment for bid writing. It is argued that:

Sustainability could have been built into this work, such a shame to lose this learning and these relationships. Network activities are not inherently ‘fundable’ but are so critical to the field. (LT3)

Despite sustainability being identified in the early stages of the work in year one and two, time would have been needed for the leadership team to create bids and engage in strategic forward thinking. The reality was that much of the leadership team time was engaged with team building, relationship building and on creating products from the work such as newsletters, webinars, and blogs.

Overarching reflections

OVUN leadership team members noted several ideas that they would like to see developed in further work. These included a request for time for leadership team and network members to present to each other about their ongoing work activities:

Would have loved to hear about mini presentations: short overview of what each person is doing, so that we got more familiar with each other’s expertise; [we]need a place where we can all go so that we can keep us in touch with each other. If you think about the massive network made (the map visual!) it will be a big loss for the field. (LT3)

I think mini presentations from each of the advisory group members over time (5 mins at the top of the meeting) would have been great to better understand our busy cross-cutting areas! Could we create a register so we can easily keep in touch and call on each other? (LT2)

Other leadership team members noted that other than the exchange of information via the newsletter to the full network, and the running of open webinars, information exchange had been limited to OVUN leadership and PhD forum members. There was a suggestion that further work could better reach out to the full network:

Give opportunity for PhD students to speak to the full network. (LT7)

Another leadership team member suggested that members of the full network could be encouraged to provide written responses to OVUN outputs, for example:

. . .taking a topic and then getting everyone to write about that topic on their perspective , something that helps to encourage people to write. (LT5)

To conclude, there is an appetite for the work of OVUN to continue into the future but recognition that this will need full resourcing to address some of the challenges noted above.

There is a notable gap in spaces for academics and practitioners to learn together, to share and to network on evidence building and child sexual abuse. The need for OVUN remains – yet, without resources and people to drive OVUN, such essential field building mechanisms may be lost. We can only hope that members of OVUN carry this torch forward in their own work. (LT3)

[1] This blog is owned collectively by the OVUN leadership as a reflection of shared thoughts and suggestions for future work. To protect leadership team members’ anonymity, we gave each leadership team member a code number, used to attribute the quotes from the leadership team meeting or from the written returns. A full list of leadership team members is available on [1]