Tips for interviewing survivors of sexualized and gender-based violence
Recently, the U.S. media has been full of accounts of rampant sexualized violence and intimidation across all branches of the U.S. military. In Egypt, we hear how sexual violence is used against female activists during and around protests in the country. A major reason these systemic human rights violations are coming to light is because brave survivors of sexualized violence were willing to speak out and share their experiences.
I am coming from several years of work with WITNESS—an international organization that trains people to use video safely and effectively for human rights advocacy. WITNESS has been working with activists campaigning to end gender-based violence globally over many of its 20 years in existence.
Readers of WMC’s Women Under Siege blog understand that it can be incredibly painful—and in some cases dangerous—to share a personal experience of sexualized violence and that the impact of this violence on individuals can be traumatic and long-lasting, taking many forms, including physical and psychological. We also know that sexualized violence happens everywhere and can happen to anyone.
Societal attitudes and stigmas, along with security risks, may silence survivors and prevent them from speaking out about their experience. Many survivors of rape in the U.S. military cited fears of their stories being brushed aside, not having their voices heard, of being attacked again. We also know that it is also challenging to ask someone to share his or her experience with you on film. Through our work, it became clear there was a need for guidance on how to conduct these interviews safely, effectively and ethically.
I’m proud to announce a new WITNESS resource: Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence. It includes considerations and guidance for anyone setting out to interview survivors. The tips are organized into stages of preparation for the interview, during the interview, and after it, and special attention is given to ensuring the safety and security of interviewees.
The guide is intended for human rights activists, citizen witnesses, citizen journalists, and professional journalists—and anyone else who might be conducting interviews with survivors for video and film.
Here are some examples of what is included in the guide:
Considerations before you begin filming an interview: Be fully considerate of your interviewee’s comfort and perspective. Take care to do no harm directly or indirectly, to an interviewee in the process of documenting their story.
Preparing for the interview: Take time to get to know your interviewee to build rapport and create questions that respect the interviewee’s dignity and comfort.
Assess safety and security for your interviewee: Ask your interviewee, What is the worst-case scenario possible? For example, what if the interviewee’s perpetrator or community sees the video and recognizes them? What types of risk could this expose them to?
On interview day: Obtain your interviewee’s informed consent.
After the interview: Get your interviewee’s feedback on the interview process.
We feel that it is vital that the voices of survivors of sexualized violence continue to be heard if this violence is to be prevented and prosecuted. Sharing firsthand accounts can also be powerful steps to healing, as Lara Logan, the CBS News correspondent attacked in Cairo in February 2011 shared on this site:
I was able to reclaim my life because I could go home to a free society, stand tall, and be open about what happened to me. I could do that without shame. Without fear of retribution. And I could emerge with my dignity restored.
The guide is initially available in English with translations coming soon in Shona, Afrikaans, Zulu, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages as possible. A prior version is already available in Swahili and it will soon be available in Arabic. We expect and hope for feedback, suggestions, and contributions that will allow us to enhance and further develop this resource. Please share your comments with or let WITNESS know if you’d like to volunteer to translate the guide: training [at] witness [dot] org.
A version of this post was also published on the WITNESS blog.
More articles by Category: International, Media, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Trauma, Stigma