Cover photo: Zaina Erhaim is an award-winning journalist from Syria, who works to uphold freedom of expression and train frontline documenters from her country.

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WITNESS marks 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: From Awareness to Accountability this year with the launch of a new guide, which looks at how video can be gathered and used to document the legal elements of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) crimes.

As the world has seen incredible solidarity and benevolence during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we also know that the resulting social crises, political conflicts and domestic stay-at-home orders contribute to more SGBV. All of which make it harder for perpetrators to be held accountable.

While the core SGBV evidence is almost always survivor or witness testimony, video evidence can do more. Our hope is that high-quality, trustworthy, and actionable video documentation can strengthen fact-finding and monitoring reports, can be used in criminal justice processes to bring perpetrators to justice, and can achieve other forms of justice for victims and survivors.

Our newest Video as Evidence resource: ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is an in-depth guide for frontline documenters and community advocates who support documenters looking to utilize video as evidence in cases involving sexual and gender-based violence.

Why is video a useful tool for documenting SGBV?

Investigating and pursuing justice and accountability for SGBV is a sensitive undertaking, especially where victims and survivors are involved. Learning how to collect and use video as evidence to help prove SGBV crimes, with lesser dependence on testimony from victims and survivors, can really help to mitigate potential risks to survivors throughout this process.

“If we can prosecute murderers without the testimony from the victim, why can’t we successfully prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence without victim testimony?”

~Casey Gwinn, former City Attorney of San Diego & President and Founder of the San Diego Family Justice Center

By being alert to and building cases with evidence other than the victim’s testimony—such as emergency calls, text messages, medical records, photographs and non-testimonial video—prosecutors can avoid the risks associated with victim testimony while also gaining new benefits, including redirecting the focus of the case squarely on the offender instead of on the victim.

Inside the guide, you will find in-depth research and guidance from expert practitioners, preparation and assessment tools, case studies, and practical exercises. Read more from our contributing experts on how non-testimonial video can be used in support of SGBV accountability. You can also follow our campaign on social media: #WeBelieveAllSurvivors.

Download the full guide here.

Why did we write this guide?

Human rights defenders tackling SGBV are already using video as a tool for advocacy and to empower survivors. However, the use of video to investigate and document SGBV crimes has yet to reach its full potential as trial-ready evidence. There are good reasons for this. Complex ethical considerations and personal safety challenges make it difficult to secure accountability for SGBV crimes. Additionally, these crimes often happen ‘behind closed doors’ and if survivors do want to come forward, they can face strong stigma.

The result is that these crimes are often invisible to society. Nevertheless, considering the widespread impunity of perpetrators of SGBV, there is a real, urgent need for better documentation and more reliable accountability and justice for survivors. And no matter the circumstances under investigation, we want make sure that that gender dynamics of human rights violations and serious crimes are at the center of any documentation effort.

Who is this guide for?

The primary responsibility to investigate and document SGBV lies with the state. However, when states fail to do so—or fail to do enough—or when state officials are themselves the perpetrators of the violence, documenters and advocates with the appropriate training, tools, and mandate may need to fill this gap to the extent that they are equipped to do so.

This guidance is for human rights documenters who are in a difficult position and face a tough choice: to document SGBV or not? It is for activists who are witnessing or otherwise know that incidents of SGBV are happening around them and do not have access to professional investigators, professional training, or vast resources, but can’t stand by and do nothing.

This guidance is also for local human rights advocates or those who work remotely or behind-the-scenes to support frontline documenters. If remote, you may be better placed to provide support given your distance from the violence. You may also be facing serious security concerns or may have been denied access to the areas where SGBV is being committed. Advocates all over the world face this problem. In September 2016, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called out 19 countries from North Korea to the United States for denying their citizens access to human rights monitors. In some circumstances, collection by community documenters is the only option.

This guide will help both local and remote advocates more easily convey what is needed from frontline and community documenters. This will help ensure that the collection efforts made, knowing all the associated risks, are worth it.

What is the purpose of this guide?

There are many barriers to accessing justice for SGBV through legal accountability. The barriers are even higher in cultures where survivors experience stigma and shame if they speak out. It is important to acknowledge, directly, that the vast majority of survivors will never receive justice, let alone justice in a court of law.

We also know that justice can take many forms, and survivors have a right to define their path to justice. This may include:

  • criminal prosecutions
  • human rights litigation
  • civil litigation
  • truth-seeking
  • reparations, including economic, medical, social, or psychological support
  • monetary compensation
  • institutional reform
  • formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing apology
  • memorialization
  • transitional, transformative and/or restorative justice.

The purpose of this guide is to provide guidance on how to use video as evidence to overcome barriers and support all paths to justice for survivors, while also minimizing asks for survivors to undertake additional risks for the sake of documentation. Because justice comes in many forms, our end goal is to ensure that any visual documentation collected will, in fact, be usable in any effort to secure accountability and justice and provide positive impacts for victims and survivors.

This guide aims to help frontline documenters:

  • outline the support that victims and survivors need
  • think about before they begin filming, including what they should learn, how to assess risks, and the importance of planning ahead before collecting video documentation
  • understand the categories of laws that exist to protect people against SGBV
  • explore areas of focus when deciding what to film by breaking down ways to prove: WHAT crime was committed, WHO committed (or who is responsible for) the crime, HOW they are responsible for the crime, and—as applicable—the CONTEXT of SGBV crimes.
Getting started

When we say #WeBelieveAllSurvivors, that also means that survivors have to be centered in any investigation and documentation effort. Centering survivors is an act of deliberate human rights solidarity, and must start with understanding that access to justice is only one part of the support they need.

While each of these support pillars is key to addressing this global issue, in this section we only discuss how to use video effectively, ethically, and safely to strengthen civil society, and access justice and accountability. The other areas outlined above are beyond the scope of this guide, but if you plan to document SGBV, and because documenting SGBV crimes has complexities beyond what can be explained here, we recommend, at a minimum, that you read the ‘Video as Evidence Field Guide’, ‘the PSVI Protocol’ and ‘Murad Code’.

Essential Readings

The criminal courts and tribunals have strict rules when it comes to setting standards for evidence in court. Throughout the ‘Video as Evidence Field Guide, WITNESS provides basic and advanced practices that activists and advocates can use to collect evidence and document elements of these crimes at a trial-ready standard.

The ‘International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, known as ‘the PSVI Protocol’, was drafted by over 200 experts in the field. The Protocol outlines current techniques, best practices, and key ideas on how to collect high-quality information with the goal of strengthening evidence collection to end impunity for sexual violence.

The ‘Global Code of Conduct for Investigating and Documenting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, known as the ‘Murad Code’, was drafted by over 160 experts, survivors, and other stakeholders from across the globe. The Code is for everyone who collects information from survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. It aims to make the work of investigating, documenting, and recording survivors’ experiences safer, more ethical, and more effective in upholding their human rights.

Our expert notes will further help you in learning and preparing.


Special thanks to Libby McAvoy, WITNESS’ former Legal Fellow and author of this section, for bringing this important guidance to light. 

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