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Professor Lucie Cluver

Professor Lucie Cluver

Lucie Cluver, Professor of Child and Family Social Work in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at University of Oxford, is working with governments and NGOs to help improve the lives of teenagers around the world

I trained as a social worker and had no intention of ever being a researcher. I was working with children affected by HIV in my home country of South Africa in early 2000s. At the time we didn’t have antiretrovirals and it was a tough situation: everyone was dying. When I asked the government what would be most useful to these children, to my surprise the answer was not money or food, but evidence. They wanted research on how best to support the emotional and mental health of children whose parents were dying from HIV, and sometimes had HIV themselves. When I discovered there wasn’t any evidence, I started the research myself.

Good evidence can make a massive impact. I went into social work because I wanted to help directly – it took other people to show me there is more than one way to make a difference. Although our research was on all adolescents, the particular vulnerabilities of teenage girls in low-income families in sub-Saharan Africa means they have benefitted most. We found that social welfare combined with parenting support reduced the incidence of risky sex among teenage girls from 11% to 2%. We were able to show this wasn’t a behavioural choice, but down to economic need and family stress. The resulting ‘Cash Plus Care’ programming has since been adopted by more than 20 countries, affecting millions of teenagers. It shows that if you can do something that makes sense and is useful, it’s extraordinary how speedily it can be taken up.

There’s been a move away from thinking about just one problem, and instead asking how you can get maximum impact across multiple sustainable development goals. Our current work with the Global Challenges Research Fund is looking at what combination of services will make the biggest difference to a teenager in Africa, not just in terms of reducing HIV risk, but every aspect of their life.

Why can’t we have childcare in place for meetings and conferences as standard? We lose so many talented female academics around the age they start a family. In our working hub, we have childcare on site or you can bring a carer for meetings. It makes it normal and acceptable to have a career and be a parent. Lots of our younger researchers have commented on how they hope to add to the crèche in future!