Last week I received an email from my friend and colleague Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege Project. She had just returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a delegation of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to meet with and interview survivors of sexual violence and the people and organizations throughout the country who are supporting them. She wrote:
I am extraordinarily moved that these women allowed me to not only tell their stories but also photograph them. Their narratives…exemplify the ongoing violation of women in so many, many ways in Congo…I feel these women’s stories deserve to be heard, and they have asked specifically for this.
I’m sharing an excerpt of one interview here. Read the whole interview with Eugenie and two other women on WMC’s Women Under Siege blog.
I also wanted to share these stories as examples of good methods we highlight in our Guide to Conducting Safe, Ethical and Effective Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. While Lauren did not film her interviews, she does employ some of the practices we discuss in our Guide. I share a few of these below the excerpt.
From “Eugenie recognizes her rapist”:
Eugenie is 20 but is shy like a much younger girl—she giggles when you ask whether she wants to get married. Maybe it’s because she’s the youngest of nine children and lives at home in North Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with her parents. I try asking her a few basic questions before we talk about what happened to her because I know this is why she has come today to Bunia: to tell her story…
In Swahili, Eugenie says through a translator that men in civilian clothes forced their way into her home three years ago and “attacked my family.” Maybe they were bandits, she says she thought at the time, because they stole a bunch of things from the house. Bandits or no, they took more than clothing or a radio from that home that day.
Unlike a number of women I’ve spoken to in Congo, Eugenie does not hesitate to plainly say the words “I was raped,” but adds that at the time that it happened it was “difficult to say that to my mother.”
…“I was afraid the act of rape could make me sick or give me diseases,” she says quietly as a way of explaining why she eventually spoke up. She says she wasn’t badly physically injured but she was hurt psychologically. Fortunately, her mother knew about the work of a local organization called SOFEPADI, which has multiple offices across Congo and does psychosocial, legal, and other support work for survivors of sexualized violence.
I ask Eugenie what form justice might take for her.
She touches her forehead and gives a hint of a smile: She’s calling up either a kind of happiness or the absurdity of what actually happened. It turns out she knew her attacker. A group of men were arrested for the raid and, bravely or recklessly, Eugenie says she wanted to see their faces. One—the man who raped her—she recognized. He was maybe 25 or 26 years old at the time and lived in her village. More than that, he was the son of a local chief.
“He had no job,” she says of her attacker, which is a relatively common thread I’ve been hearing about civilian men who rape. Usually they have no work and are alleged to drink or smoke marijuana a lot. “He was doing nothing.”
Police arrested Eugenie’s rapist in December 2011. But after that, she says, she doesn’t know if he escaped from jail or what. Such a lack of follow-up is indicative of the astronomical rates of impunity for rape in Congo. It is exactly this kind of hollow justice that allows men to continue to brutalize women—they know they can get away with it.
Evaluating Safety and Security Risks to Interviewee
With each interview Lauren conducted she asked if the woman was willing to share her story on record and for publication online. She also asked how each woman would be comfortable being identified (most of them agreed to share their first names only). Each woman also agreed to be photographed, with considerations for their own safety. Eugenie, for example, requested that her face not be shown.
Crafting Ethical, Open-Ended Questions
Lauren asks Eugenie to describe what justice would look like for her. This question requests a descriptive response from the interviewee rather than a yes or no answer, which could end the conversation quickly. This particular question allows for one of the more candid and surprising moments of the interview- Eugenie shares that she asked to see the faces of the men arrested in connection with her attack and she identifies the man who raped her.
Obtaining Informed Consent
As standard practice, Lauren explains to each interviewee about and asks for their informed consent. This involves ensuring that the interviewee understands the purpose of the interview, how they will be identified and where the interview might appear. Lauren wrote to me, “I always explain that the work will appear in the international media, where anyone can see it… At some point, you have to respect their wishes, but you also want to be sure they understand how the Internet and the international media disseminates stories.”
These three women, some of whom had traveled up to 48 hours to Bunia to share their stories, all agreed to proceed with their interviews.
After the Interview
Post-interview follow up varies widely by situation. In this case, the women had a specific intention of sharing their stories publicly, widely. Lauren has done so on her blog as well as in Foreign Policy magazine. She is also attempting to share translated versions of the published stories with the interviewees. Lauren wrote, “The translator who sat with us for the FP piece said she was going to translate the story into Swahili to show the woman profiled.” She is also in touch with SOFEPADI, the group who facilitated the interviews in Bunia, including with Eugenie. She has sent the link to her blog article in the hopes they can translate and share back with the women.
Another example of ethical interviewing practices, also from the DRC context, can be seen in “Our Voices Matter: Congolese Women Demand Justice and Accountability,” a video co-production between WITNESS and the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice.
Our Guide to Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is currently available in English, French and Spanish with an Arabic translation coming soon. We have also produced a six-part video series as part of the Guide. All are available for free download.
Photo of Eugenie courtesy Lauren Wolfe.