Focus Groups with Women: Things Left Unsaid

By Ksenia Varlyguina, MPH ’12 in Population and Family Health

I started focus groups with contraceptive users yesterday. It’s been providers-only before, gathering data in Bogotá. Women, contraceptive users, clients – whatever you call them, are completely different. Their stories get into your heart, their words are less precise, their qualms don’t fit into charts and tables. It’s draining. I had two groups today, maybe that’s why I want to crawl into bed and eat Rocky Road ice cream with potato chips. For a week. While watching bad TV.

This is me looking ready for the focus groups.

Maybe it’s because I had a million things I wanted to tell them, clarify, provide resources. But focus groups aren’t about that. They are about observation and listening. I can try to improve things later on, but in the moment I am helpless to change anything. I agree and accept all sorts of responses that I wouldn’t dream of encouraging if I were presenting, teaching, training.

The things I wish I could have said pile up throughout the hour or two and linger in my head, when the women leave alone or in pairs, thanking me or walking out quietly. This happened in the Dominican Republic, too, when I did life-story interviews there. (Much messier, completely unstructured, unsupervised, ultimately unused.) So much I wish I could have said.  If wishes were horses…here is what I would have said, were it possible, were it up to me:

1. Your body is yours. Not your lover’s, not your husband’s, not your children’s. Yours. You are responsible for it, for doing what is right for you, for ensuring – at times, forcefully – that others respect this right, your decisions, your needs.

2. Whether or not you want to be pregnant is your choice. Yours alone. My heart aches for you that your experience has been one of disassociation, abandonment, fear, resignation. You deserve to be happy.

3. I don’t know how to help. I very much wish I did. I am working on things that might maybe end up helping you, or women like you, sometime in the future. But this moment? I am at a loss.

View Ksenia’s previous posts, My Orientation- Working with and for Women in Bogotá and Lessons from My First Focus Group, or read her personal blog for more about her adventures.

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