Join us on International Women’s Day 2022 as we continue to spotlight our newest Video as Evidence guide ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence’, along with many other resources that will assist you to safely and ethically document evidence of SGBV crimes for deeper justice and accountability.
Follow the hashtag: #WeBelieveAllSurvivors.
Read this post in Spanish.
Notes from the Field
Human rights defenders around the world who seek to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have long used video as an effective tool to empower survivors.
For 30 years, WITNESS has worked side-by-side with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, activists in transnational movements, partnered groups and allies to produce video that advocate for the rights of survivors and also tell their stories.
Some of our key highlights include:
- 2005 video advocacy campaign to address impunity for the disappearances and violent murder of women in Mexico in partnership with the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (the Mexican Commission for the Protection of Human Rights), which involved the production of the film Dual Injustice: Feminicide and Torture in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. The campaign and film played a pivotal role to secure international resolutions against the abduction and murders of women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, as well as the freedom of David Meza who was brutally coerced into confessing to the murder of his cousin Neyra Cervantes.
- 2009 video advocacy campaign in partnership with Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF). Following an initial training in early summer 2008, SAF and WITNESS produced Breaking the Silence in 2009 as part of a campaign to lobby the Yemeni Parliament to end the marginalization of Akhdam women survivors from Yemen.
- 2010 video advocacy campaign in partnership with Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice (WIGJ) and survivors from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic to co-produce several advocacy films. This collaboration resulted in the creation of the resource series ‘Interviewing Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence’.
- 2016 in-depth report ‘Capturing Hate’, that analyzed the profound misuse of eyewitness videos of homophobic and transphobic violence as entertainment in the United States
The Case for Documentary Evidence
The work that has been done by WITNESS in the past few decades has informed the creation of a new guide on the evidentiary documentation of SGBV crimes that WITNESS launched recently, recognizing that documenters, activists, advocates, and survivors will continue to produce impactful films, documentaries and advocacy videos that help amplify the stories of survivors of SGBV for greater change. This resource includes key learnings and important notes from experts and practitioners in the field who have spent many years supporting survivors in their pursuit of justice.
Exposure by a video can shed light on these hidden crimes, thus contributing to a broader justice effort. While the core SGBV evidence is almost always survivor or witness testimony, video evidence – such as visuals of the crime scene and surveillance footage – can strengthen fact-finding and monitoring reports. It can also be used in criminal justice processes to bring perpetrators to justice, and to achieve other forms of justice for victims and survivors.
Even when SGBV crimes are perpetrated on a widespread and systematic scale, these crimes are often largely ‘invisible’ in a traumatized society.
“If we can prosecute murders without the testimony of the victim, then why can’t we successfully prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence without victim testimony?” – Casey Gwinn, San Diego Family Justice Center
As a collective, we are still learning the best ways to reduce harm that may occur in efforts to support survivors of SGBV. Actively minimizing psychological damage or distress as well as physical forms of harm requires a deep awareness of risks. Understanding the barriers to, and consequences of, disclosing SGB requires contextual knowledge of a society, culture, or space.
Community documenters should understand that documenting SGBV crimes can be beneficial to survivors and their communities. Balancing the need for information with the potential risk of harm to those being filmed or informants, is imperative.
“What does harm even mean and who decides? What measure of ‘harm’ or ‘discomfort’ is acceptable in order to achieve a greater good? Who decides?” – Kim Thuy Seelinger, Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration, Washington University, St Louis
The use of video to investigate and document SGBV crimes has yet to reach its full potential as trial-ready evidence. In many contexts, these crimes often happen ‘behind closed doors’, often on a widespread and systematic scale. 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.
Even if survivors do want to come forward, they can still face deep stigma that spans across generations. It is vitally important that documenters and advocates understand the exact parameters and the full, personal context of each case before seeking to document it or even contact survivors.
“I have two daughters, and those children can’t marry because if a man comes to take their hands in marriage, community members send the man away by saying my daughters are children of the rebels. These children are not allowed to make any decision in the community, even in the meeting. At the borehole, even if they are the first when other people come they have to leave way and let those be the first to fetch water because if they try to resist, they tell them, ‘You don’t belong to this place, go look for your father’.”
– Mother from Soroti, Uganda
Supporting and Protecting Survivors
It is essential to recognize that access to justice for victims or survivors of SGBV, their families, and their communities is only one part of the support they need. We realize that documenters and advocates often work in situations with few resources and that some—or most—of the additional services (see GIF), may not be available to the people you are trying to help.
In these circumstances, if you decide to move forward with your documentation work, be sure you know what additional support is needed and do your best to secure this for victims and survivors. SGBV crimes are traumatic to victims and witnesses.
Trauma is a bio-psychosocial experience in which an overwhelming event cause nervous system reactions. These survival reactions—fight, flight, freeze, and even faint—while adaptive in the moment of threat, can leave physical, psychological, and interpersonal symptoms in survivors. These can include feeling hyper-aroused (in a fear state), intrusively re-experiencing images and memories, feeling shame and humiliation, withdrawing, and shutting down or avoiding discussions of the trauma.
All of these reactions can then be triggered by interviews or questioning of survivors. A video interview may heighten the intensity of the survivor’s reaction, so it must be conducted carefully.
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.
Placing victim testimony at the core of domestic violence cases is not only a self-defeating approach that too often leads to failed prosecutions, but is physically and psychologically harmful to victims.
If you are documenting SGBV as part of your human rights work, review the new WITNESS guide ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence’ to learn the many pathways to hold perpetrators accountable for acts of sexual and gender-based violence.