That’s a term we used a lot during my gender masters studies. It basically means that as a researcher you acknowledge that the first hand account of someone living in a minority or oppressed group is a valid form of knowledge. As a gender equality researcher I find myself using this term when discussing case-studies, ethnographic interviews or any other small scale evidence gathering exercises.
Although donors love the big numbers, anyone with an ounce of sense knows that people living in poverty don’t think of themselves as belonging to the ‘lowest quintile of wealth’. The same is true for girls growing up in a culture that forces them to marry early or denies them the opportunity to go to school. These girls experience discrimination, but don’t necessarily think of themselves as disadvantaged or even abused. In many ways grouping them under one indicator, such as early marriage, is simply a categorization that doesn’t do justice to the many intersecting identities and pressures and cultures and issues that they experiences growing up as girls. Therefore, as a feminist researcher, it is important to delve into the ‘world’ of your research subject and to accurately portray the many layers that make up their lives and their choices.
At the same time I find myself falling into the trap of ‘killer facts’ all the time. The big numbers, the millions and tens of millions; the out of schools, the FGM victims, the living on the street, the maternal mortalities; you name it. And more often than not as a researcher in a large NGO I’m asked to generate these facts. I’m told that a quote is not evidence. That a story can add color, and ‘hey even policy makers at the World Bank are people, right?’ But it’s not proof. So I spend my time running after household surveys and school based questionnaires. And people, children, boys and girls, become ‘target groups’, and they stop being real. They are a number, a fact, a case.
And then I get an email, on Saturday morning, telling me one of our research subjects has had a terrible accident. She drowned in a river and her father couldn’t get there fast enough to save her. She was only five.
This girl had a voice. And she used it to tell us her story. It was a story of a loving family, struggling with poverty. It was a story of a small girl who couldn’t wait to start school and who loved playing with her friends by the river. And I dare anyone to tell me her story is not evidence. And her words are not proof.