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New How-To Guide For Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Posted on August 14, 2013 by Rose Anderson

Today we are proud to announce a new training 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, after the interview and special attention is given to ensuring the safety and security of interviewees.

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Watch the accompanying 6-part video series, featuring  first-hand experience from trainees, experts, and leading activists and survivors.

Why a Guide?

Recently the U.S. media has been full of accounts of rampant sexual 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 sexual violence were willing to speak out and share their experiences.

For years WITNESS has worked with activists campaigning to end gender-based violence globally. We know that it can be incredibly painful to share a personal experience of sexual violence. 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.

Who is the Guide for?

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. It is currently available in English, French and Spanish with translations coming soon in Arabic, Portuguese, Shona, Swahili and Zulu.

Here’s an overview of what is included in the Guide:

Before You Begin:

  • Remember the fundamental principle of using video for human rights: do no harm, directly or indirectly, to an interviewee in the process of documenting their story.
  • Consider the lasting impact that sexual violence can have on an individual, and be fully considerate of your interviewee’s comfort and perspective.

Get more tips for Before You Begin in the Guide

Before Interview Day:

  • Identify your interviewee and take time to get to know him/her to build rapport.
  • Create questions in advance that respect the interviewee’s dignity and comfort and uses terminology that is appropriate.

Get more tips on Before Interview Day in the Guide

Safety and Security:

  • 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?

Get more tips on Safety and Security in the Guide

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On Interview Day

  • Obtain your interviewee’s informed consent.
  • Set up your shots and sound for best quality – while respecting your interviewee’s personal space when arranging shots and placing microphones.

Get more tips on Interview Day in the Guide

After Interview Day:

  • Get your interviewee’s feedback on the interview process.
  • Share any needed contact information for a counselor or other resources.

Get more tips on After Interview Day in the Guide

Acknowledgments and Feedback

This guide, like all of our endeavors at WITNESS, came together with the help, insight and support of many individuals. In particular we’d like to thank the following for their contributions and review of this resource: Marija Tosheva, Kudakwashe Chitsike, Elana Newman, Violeta Krasnic, Amy Hill, and Benje Douglas.

Stay tuned for an accompanying training video that will go deeper into some of the ethics and best practices for interviewing survivors.

If you are looking for a language other than those listed above or if you can help translate the Guide, please email us at training [at] witness [dot] org.

Finally, this is Version 1.0. We expect and hope for feedback, suggestions, and contributions that will allow us to enhance and further develop this resource. Please share your comments below, or send them to training [at] witness [dot] org.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Salwa AbdelTawab June 14, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I can translate it into Arabic and Russian. Please contact me if I can help. Best Regards!

  2. Iva Vukusic December 18, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    After some correspondence with staff at Witness, I was asked to post a comment with some advice I was given about interviewing sensitive witnesses, such as victims of sexual violence.
    I was an analyst at the Special War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo and I worked with many experienced investigators and prosecutors. They always stressed that, if there is a need to speak in detail about the actual rape, as in the context of an investigation (because details will come up at trial), the questions that are likely to be most upsetting should be asked – last.
    Investigators and prosecutors always wanted to do an interview in one go, in one day if possible, as to minimize the damage and trauma for the survivor…Often, if witnesses break down, you need to reschedule and this just makes it worse for some and it was understood that trying to finish an interview in one go was best (while being careful not to rush). Given that most witnesses broke down when describing the actual assault, that would be left for last (in case they broke down, all the other questions have been already answered).
    Therefore, all other details that you might need – what was the location, time of day, who was/were the suspect(s), what was he wearing, what was his accent, was it cold or warm etc – all this should be asked first and then, the actual rape is left for the end.
    Also, witnesses seemed to respond better when the intrusiveness of questions was recognized by the interviewer i.e. when interviewer would acknowledge that it must be exceptionally hard to discuss such intimate, traumatic events with strangers.

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