Ethical considerations

The project obtained the approval of the Ethical Committee of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of Ghent University. The ethical protocol was created before the commencement of the fieldwork to ensure the quality and integrity of the research, and the well-being of the participants. Yet, the research process presented additional ethical challenges during the different stages of the research project (some of which are described above), which were dealt with through continuous reflection as a research team.

Obtaining the informed consent of participants ensured their voluntary participation and guaranteed that they were correctly informed. The participants were informed of what would happen with their data, the goal of the research, and their rights as participants -such as the right to withdraw participation at any time. Asking for written informed consent was not possible in this context as the women - through their position on the margin of society - are naturally suspicious of paper forms and signing documents. Instead, a verbal confirmation of consent which was approved by the ethical committee was requested (with both researchers as witnesses). After explaining the process to participants in a group such as this, verbal consent should suffice if they are worried about signing a document; after all, informed consent often offers more protection to researchers and their institutions than it does to the participants (Cwikel & Hoban, 2005; de Wildt, 2016; Kelly & Coy, 2016; McNutt et al., 2008). We also recognized that ethics goes beyond signed documentation and the fulfilment of the ethics committee’s criteria, but rather is a continuous process of negotiation between the participants and researchers (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004; Samyn et al., 2020).

Since the fieldwork consisted of several informal moments with participants, the researchers always wore their UGent outfits so that their role as researchers was always evident. Aside from distributing condoms (and a small thank you gift at the end), none of the participants was remunerated to ensure that participation was voluntary. Some of the (younger) women whom the researchers encountered during the night shifts were being watched (by other Nigerian or Ghanaian African men or women) and did not want to be interviewed. To avoid endangering them, this was respected, and they were not pressured in any way to participate in the research.

Informed consent is at heart an interpersonal process between researcher and participant, where the prospective participant comes to an understanding of what the research project is about and what participation would involve and makes his or her own free decision about whether, and on what terms, to participate.

(Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, p. 272)

The researchers experienced tension with other roles in their relationships with the women, e.g. that of a practitioner (they both have prior experience in social work and counselling) or even that of a friend, making it sometimes challenging to merely observe. Subsequently, the research was accompanied by a process of constant reflection about interpretations and boundaries. We created a referral network of support services that we contacted beforehand, in case questions for certain types of support came up. The referral list was created in the belief that carrying out the interviews with the women without a reference point for assistance if needed would be unethical (Zimmerman & Watts, 2003). It consisted of organizations, and governmental and non-governmental agencies that offered assistance and care to groups that include (both documented and undocumented) women working in prostitution. This list was adapted during the course of the research as we discovered other organizations or realized that we had overlooked certain services which the women themselves reminded us of, thereby agreeing that “one way that some harm in a research context may be avoided (or at least mitigated) is providing respondents with information about services and support as part of the research protocol” (Surtees & Brunovskis, 2016, p. 140). We gave each of our participants a pamphlet with this referral network list at the end of the research and were able to refer some of the women to two of the organizations on the list.

A data management plan was drafted in compliance with the latest European legislation that ensures correct storage and usage of the data. Therefore, participants were encouraged to give us fake names, and our field notes were coded to protect any personal information. Nevertheless, the anonymization of the results is a complex process in the context of a geographically defined and known space. The “small population” problem has been discussed in relation to ethnographic studies, “which often focus on a particular village or town, where there is a high risk that individuals may recognize themselves in the talk of others” (Saunders et al., 2015, p. 619). Different techniques of pseudonymization, anonymization, and generalization were employed in this book to ensure the protection of the identity of the participants.

Finally, migration and prostitution are elusive phenomena that take place on the margins of society and are sometimes in violation of the law. Considering ethnography “a powerful tool for accessing women’s lives” (Sanders, 2004, p. 1707), we must consider the public to whom the book is addressed and the risks of misinterpretation or misuse. Revealing secrets can have unwanted consequences, especially for people who have developed certain strategies of survival which they might prefer to keep hidden. It is for this reason that we went back into the field at a later stage to present our recommendations to the participants and to ask for their feedback.

 
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