Before undertaking or supporting an intervention that aims to assist VAWG survivors and prevent re-victimization40, it is paramount to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed to protect the safety of both survivors and the professionals providing services or programming. These include: respect for persons, non-maleficence (minimizing harm), beneficence (maximizing benefits), and justice.
- Respect: for the wishes, rights, and dignity of the survivor and be guided by the best interests of the child
- Confidentiality: at all times, except when the survivor or the service provider faces imminent risk to her or his well-being, safety, and security
- Safety and security: ensure the physical safety of the survivor and those who help her (IASC, 2005)
Due to the sensitive nature of collecting information about VAWG, additional precautions above and beyond routine risk assessments must be taken to guarantee no harm is caused.
- Assess whether the intervention may increase VAWG: Examine pre-existing gender vulnerabilities such as gender discrimination, gender-based exclusion, unequal gender norms, or institutional weakness. Assess how the interaction of these factors, in combination with the intervention, may contribute to increased VAWG. Identify and add elements to prevent or mitigate this risk.
- Minimize harm to women: A woman may suffer physical harm and other forms of violence if a partner finds out that she has been talking to others about her relationship with him. Because many violent partners control the actions of their girlfriends of wives, even the act of speaking to another person without his permission may trigger a beating. As such, asking women about violence should be confidential, and should take place in complete privacy, with the exception of children under the age of two. Informed consent for any data collection, even as part of a case file, should be offered and if anonymity can be guaranteed, it should also be provided. The project staff must be trained on how to preserve the safety of women while interviewing/collecting data on this topic.
- Prevent re-victimization of VAWG survivors: Promote use of the Gesell Dome system41 by justice system personnel for obtaining testimonies of survivors of violence to avoid the re-victimization of women through a) telling their story in front of an audience and b) repeating their statement various times. If this mechanism is not available, record survivor statements.
- Consider the implications of mandatory reporting of suspected VAW cases: Certain countries have laws that require professionals (including health care providers) to report cases of suspected abuse to authorities or social service agencies. Such laws are challenging because they can conflict with key ethical principles: respect for confidentiality, the need to protect vulnerable populations, and respect for autonomy. In the case of adult women, there is consensus that the principles of autonomy and confidentiality should prevail.
- Be aware of the co-occurrence of child abuse: Given that VAWG may occur concurrently with child abuse, before a service provider (teacher, nurse, police officer, etc.) comes to know about child abuse a protocol should be developed outlining how to act in “the best interests of the child,”42 a standard that each project or country team should operationalize locally, based on advice from key agencies.
- Minimize harm to staff working with survivors: Given the high prevalence of VAWG globally, it is likely that a substantial proportion of service providers will have experienced it themselves at some point. Even for those service providers or project staff who have not experienced VAWG, hearing about experiences of violence can induce vicarious trauma.43 Ensure there is a supportive venue, ideally another trained professional (such as a psychologist) for staff to debrief and share their concerns.
- Provide referrals for care and support: At a minimum, professionals working with women in a situation of violence have an ethical obligation to provide them with information or services. Where specific violence-related services are available, develop a detailed directory professionals can use to make referrals, and consider developing a small pamphlet with listed resources that can be given to women. Ensure that providers confirm that it is safe for women to receive these materials, as bringing these home may further provoke a violent partner.
- 39. Adapted from Ellsberg M, and Heise L. (2005). Researching Violence Against Women: A Practical Guide for Researchers and Activists. Washington DC, United States: World Health Organization, PATH.
- 40. The term re-victimization is often used to refer to survivors who experienced GBV once before (sometimes in their childhood or youth), and experience one or more additional incidences later in life. In this context, however, it refers to the unsympathetic treatment survivors sometimes face in dealing with the justice or health system, an experience that can be a secondary form of victimization.
- 41. The Gesell Dome, a room with one-way mirrors, is one of the measures used to obtain survivors’ statements while avoiding their re-victimization.
- 42. The term “best interests” broadly describes the well-being of a child. Such well-being is determined by a variety of individual circumstances, such as the age, the level of maturity of the child, the presence or absence of parents, the child’s environment and experiences. Its interpretation and application must conform with the CRC and other international legal norms, as well as with the guidance provided by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its 2005 General Comment No. 6 on the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin.” UNHCR, p. 14, May 2008 (for further information see citation)
- 43. Coles, Jan, Jill Astbury, Elizabeth Dartnall, Lizle Loots, and Shazneen Limjerwala. “Taking Care of Ourselves.” Sexual Violence Research Initiative. October 13, 2011. Accessed December 12, 2012.