For professionals who work in sexual violence research and monitoring and evaluation (M&E), engaging with survivors of sexual violence can be a powerful tool for combatting impunity and securing justice. But it can be a double-edged sword, particularly if done in a manner that puts survivors at risk of being re-traumatized. Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones has spent the past few months diving into the question of how can you capture the unique and diverse voices of survivors without causing them further trauma and pain?
More humanitarian practitioners are seeing the value of survivors’ voices in guiding humanitarian programming. Survivors can advocate for each other more effectively than anyone else. For practitioners, like PHR, who provide programs to help survivors secure justice, an important way to know whether these programs work may be by engaging with survivors directly. But beyond re-traumatization, other significant risks include stigma, discrimination, and retaliation. That’s why PHR has avoided engaging directly with sexual violence survivors, instead relying on the professionals we work with who support survivors – like health care workers, police officers, and lawyers – to speak to survivor needs.
While this approach has allowed us to avoid survivor re-traumatization, we believe survivors have a critical perspective in developing survivor-centered programs that we should understand. Furthermore, there is diversity of experience among survivors that is important to capture. To address this, we conducted secondary research and spoke to several scholars on the topic to better understand what it would take to ethically engage with survivors in our research and M&E. Here are our five top takeaways:
1. Think carefully about why you want to engage the survivor.
Before engaging with survivors, ask yourself what your motivation is. Are you looking for survivors’ perspectives to design more survivor-centered or rights-based programming, in which case engagement may be necessary? Or are you simply looking for a quote for a report? In the latter case, engagement, with its attendant risks, might best be avoided.
If you have a clear purpose for engagement, then think through the following questions:
What information will you need from survivors that you cannot capture from anyone else? If the data you need can be captured elsewhere, then survivors’ testimony should be avoided, given the potential risks to their well-being.
Is this data necessary to achieve your research and/or M&E objectives? If the data is not critical for meeting your goals, then there is no clear reason to engage survivors.
2. The benefits of survivor engagement should outweigh the costs.
The benefits of engaging with sexual violence survivors must be greater than the risks to them. This point emerged in nearly every interview we conducted, and is a central recommendation provided by the World Health Organization in its guiding principles for documenting sexual violence in emergencies. Before engaging with survivors, first check: What are the costs and benefits of engaging for both the survivor and the organization? Engagement should have benefits to the survivor at its core; this tends to be either not clearly defined or de-prioritized altogether. Engagement should also carefully evaluate the potential risks to the survivor. For example, are we gathering data that could put survivors at risk? If so, how can we mitigate such risks? One way to gather these insights might be through a costs/benefits exercise led by survivors themselves, although we could not find any obvious tool that does this – a gap which emerged through our research.
3. Engage survivors as partners in the design of M&E and/or research.
Often, the beneficiaries of programs – the people who count the most – are overlooked and underappreciated in humanitarian programming. Yet survivors of sexual violence can provide unique perspectives grounded in the day-to-day experiences of the very people that programs are designed to support—key for designing survivor-centered or rights-based programming.
One way to elevate survivor voices is to seek their input on the central research question, or on designing data security and confidentiality measures, research tools, goals, and outputs. Ask them: “What are you hoping to see from this research and how can we work together to meet those goals?” Engage with survivors regularly, either one-on-one or by creating a survivor advisory group, ensuring that they provide inputs into the research or M&E process every step of the way.
4. Carefully tailor the size and composition of the interview team to meet the needs of the survivors being interviewed.
It is important to note that survivors are not a monolithic group of individuals. Survivors can be of different genders, different ages – from child to adolescent to adult – and represent many other kinds of diversity. Although our research has focused primarily on adult survivors, it is also critical to understand the differences that exist within this group. Therefore, when considering who should engage with the survivor, our research and interviews have suggested that practitioners ideally work with local implementation NGOs that engage with survivor communities to identify and designate:
- Someone from the same culture and/or shared trauma as the survivor being interviewed, which allows for more effective trust-building;
- Someone with an M&E and/or research background;
- Someone who has interviewed trauma-affected populations in the past (and particularly the survivor type in question); and/or
- Someone who has gained respect and trust within the community of interest.
It may also be worth choosing a physical and/or mental health care professional, but as this is not always possible, all facilitators should be trained in basic psychological first aid.
Finding someone who checks all of these boxes can be difficult, so a team of facilitators may be necessary.
5. Ensure that you work with funders to ensure that survivors’ basic needs are met from a funding/budget perspective.
Engaging with survivors comes with financial costs; for example, you may need to transport survivors to a safe and secure location. Sometimes, a survivor may not want to engage unless they are compensated for their time and support. Humanitarian practitioners should work with funders to set aside adequate funding to support survivors through the engagement process.
More Research Needed
These principles are a starting point, but they have revealed a few key gaps. Little guidance exists on specific mechanisms for engaging with survivors in research and M&E. Also, there appears to be no existing costs/benefits tool centered on sexual violence survivor engagement.
To address these limitations and build on these insights, PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones is currently conducting a study to better understand existing methods for engaging with survivors of sexual violence in conflict-ridden, resource-constrained contexts (see where PHR works). We want to identify gaps in current research and practices. And, finally, we hope to develop rigorous, survivor-centered, and trauma-informed methods for ethically engaging survivors of sexual violence in research and M&E initiatives – harnessing their unique and precious perspectives in the effort to secure justice for all survivors of these crimes.