Listening to Young Voices: A Guide to Interviewing Children and Young People in Truth Seeking and Documentation Efforts

Valerie Waters
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Too often, truth-seeking processes forget a vital segment of society: the young.

When youth as the inheritors of current societies speak out, their voices have the potential to reveal hidden and overlooked impacts of massive human rights violations, such as what it is like to be a child denied an education because schools have been destroyed or turned into military barracks or what it is like to be a child denied an identity after a parent was disappeared. More importantly, their viewpoints also suggest what the future may hold for a society emerging from violence or repression.

It is in the best interest of both children and society to listen to young voices. Throughout our work in diverse contexts, ranging from Canada and Colombia to Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Tunisia, we have witnessed the power of young peoples’ voices to provide new insights on the way forward for their communities and societies in pursuing peace and justice. But if we want to hear the revelatory insights of children and youth, we have to check our tendency to talk at them with pre-formulated solutions and, instead, listen to them on their own terms. As adults in positions of power, we need to open our ears to hear the reality of how young people are impacted by human rights violations, how they see their society, where it is going, what role they see for themselves, and their vision for the present and future.

It is in that spirit we present this guide to help practitioners speak with children and young people in a way that involves them in the truth-telling process and opens a space for them to speak the unvarnished truth, share their unique and invaluable perspectives, and pave the way for them to lead us into a healthier future.

We know that conflict and repression affect children in specific and enduring ways because they are in their formative years and hold a more vulnerable position in society. Where efforts are taking place to acknowledge and address past wrongs, the voices of children and youth are needed to show the full picture of what happened, who was harmed, and how it continues to affect people’s lives. Without their stories, any truth-seeking process will be incomplete.

Understanding the intergenerational consequences of past violations and building a collective sense of responsibility around addressing them is a crucial first step in breaking cycles of violations and building a more just society. Samantha, a 14-year-old who spoke at a youth forum of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, reminds us that even if young people did not live through the conflict or period of repression in question or were not directly targeted by human rights violations, they still have a stake in their country’s search for the truth. Reflecting on a system by which indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government-funded, church-run schools in order to strip them of their indigenous culture, Samantha noted: “Although we may have not taken part in the creation of Residential Schools, it can still be easy to feel ashamed that the country where you have lived your whole life was willing to put these children in as much suffering as they had to go through. It’s a healing process we must go through as a whole.” After all, it is Samantha’s generation that will need to cope with the legacies of unresolved human rights violations.

As direct victims, children must be consulted as to the best way to address their experiences. Often their needs are different from what adults assume is best for them. Maria, a former child soldier in Colombia, was frustrated when she was offered training in baking and cobblery when what she really wanted was to pursue a university degree: “Many of us possess vast experience in the areas of survival, health, and discipline that we gained as a result of our time in the armed groups. But it’s not appreciated . . . [The programs we’re offered] do not help us to achieve our dreams and a higher purpose.” Defying stereotypes of what a traumatized child with limited capacity should be, some youth may want to build on what they learned from these challenging, formative experiences to forge their own futures.

Opening spaces for children and youth to speak also lays the groundwork for their ongoing civic engagement. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, at a time when the official truth-seeking process was stalled, ICTJ worked with a group of youth leaders in creating their own truth-seeking process using a radio program based on testimonies and dialogues they had documented across the country. The program chronicled a very different history than the one told in official circles, setting aside the notion that youth violence was a form of mass hysteria, instead suggesting that the 2010–2011 election crisis was the boiling point in a long-standing intergenerational conflict.

These youth took responsibility for their past and, even more importantly, for their future. Amandine, 22, one of the radio show hosts, notes: “Actors we have been. Perpetrators, too, in the recent history of Côte d’Ivoire. But what type of actors will we be? What role do we want to play in the future of our beautiful nation, our beautiful country? What do we need to do to avoid the return of massive human rights violations and the unnecessary suffering of the population?” Bringing children and youth into the truth-seeking process had a catalytic effect in Côte d’Ivoire, turning disparate youth activists into a youth-led organization working towards peace and justice.

It is this momentum and civic engagement that a country needs as it emerges from conflict or repression, to serve as a check on power and to continually push for human rights to be respected, so all citizens can live in dignity.

As adults, the best thing we can do to help facilitate that action is to take a seat and listen.

-By Virginie Ladisch, Head of ICTJ Children and Youth program


As human rights advocates and state representatives increasingly acknowledge the necessity of involving children in truth-seeking processes, there is a growing need for practical tools that facilitate children’s participation while prioritizing their protection. This statement-taking protocol provides a framework for interviewing children who have expressed a desire to recount their experiences to truth-seeking and documentation efforts, outlining protection principles, inquiry strategies, and behavioral guidelines for interacting with children.

This protocol is intended to help advance effective responses to human rights violations committed against children in the context of armed conflict and oppressive rule; however, the techniques and guidelines contained herein are not themselves new. This tool has been developed based on decades of research and reflection from social workers, mental-health professionals, and child-protection advocates working to address child maltreatment at the individual, family, and community levels.

The primary principle in the creation of this document is the child-centered approach. The well-being of the child is prioritized above all other concerns, including, but not limited to, the accuracy and completeness of the information gathered. While tension may at times exist between the child’s best interests and the goals of the truth-seeking body, on the whole, research has found that principles that prioritize the child’s well-being above other concerns are compatible with principles that prioritize data collection. For example, open-ended questions serve the dual purpose of creating a comfortable atmosphere for the child and increasing the accuracy of the information the child provides. Similarly, investing time in building trust and rapport between the child and the statement taker at the start of the interview can reduce the child’s stress about discussing traumatic personal experiences and events, while also acclimating the child to the approach the interviewer will use to help the child retrieve their memories, facilitating the collection of more complete statements.

One significant departure this protocol makes from established best practices in forensic interviewing of children is the exclusion of “truth induction.” While the original version of this protocol included an elicitation of the child’s promise to tell the truth, it has since eliminated this element. This change has been instituted in order to account for the atmosphere of intense mistrust often present in societies facing legacies of massive human rights violations, including the proliferation of allegations and denials of human rights violations. It is the responsibility of truth-seeking bodies to conduct broad investigations (including by collecting physical evidence, electronic and paper documents, media archives, other sources, and interviews from both children and adults), of which children’s narratives are only one component. Therefore, in these efforts children’s narratives need not stand on their own, as they often do in criminal justice cases. Thus, it is unnecessary to risk alienating a child with the implication that they may be inclined to lie during the interview. Instead, it is better to err on the side of building a trusting rapport between the child and the statement taker.

As a general guide for engaging with children, this protocol cannot cover all the specific considerations in all cultures and contexts that will need to be accounted for. The protocol and all other procedures for incorporating child participation in truth-seeking efforts must be adapted to the local context, in order to ensure their appropriateness and utility. Adaptations may include: expansion of the rapport-building section to enable greater time for relationship development in contexts where there is a strong atmosphere of mistrust between institutions and members of marginalized groups, conversion of the protocol’s use of probes (“Tell me about . . .”) to questions (“Can you tell me about . . . ?”) depending on conversational norms and cultural conceptions of politeness, altered structure of informed consent procedures allowing for varied literacy levels among adult populations, and any other changes that increase the protocol’s suitability for the context while upholding child-protection principles.

In the course of utilizing this protocol it may be useful to refer to the key source documents it is based on. For this reason, the bibliography points toward additional resources that informed the design of this tool. For further guidance on implementing or adapting this protocol, please contact ICTJ’s Children and Youth Program at