Data collection on sexual violence: ethical and methodological considerations


Laura Pasquero, Course Director of the Executive Short Course “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies,” interviewed Dr Emilie Venables, expert speaker of the course and operational researcher for the Centre for Operational Research and Experience (CORE) at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). During the Q&A, they talked about Dr Venables’s research work on sexual violence, the role of data collection on sexual violence and key related ethical and methodological considerations.

Dr Emilie Venables

Could you tell me about the sexual violence research you are working on at the ICRC’s Centre for Operational Research and Experience (CORE), and why this study is critical?

The CORE was established in 2018 to enhance the ICRC’s efforts to foster a culture of ethically generated, evidence-based research and to promote the uptake of research findings in the ICRC’s operations. Most of the CORE’s ongoing research is related to exploring ways of influencing behaviour to comply with humanitarian norms and restraint in the use of violence.

I am currently working on a qualitative research study about male perceptions of sexual violence in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). The study explores how young men and their communities understand sexual violence and how men think about – and can be engaged in – prevention.  The study’s focus on men does not mean we should forget about the needs of survivors (both male and female). Instead, it highlights the need also to understand violence from the perspective of potential perpetrators.

I carried out fieldwork in both countries in late 2020, with support from local teams from the ICRC, Rift Valley Institute, and the University of Bangui. I am currently analysing the data and writing up the findings.  The analysis is still in the early stages (there were almost 100 interviews and focus group discussions to transcribe and translate), but preliminary results show the importance of considering young men’s beliefs around responsibility and accountability for sexual violence and suggest ways of engaging men in prevention activities.

How important is data collection for sexual violence programming in humanitarian settings, including for practitioners who are not researchers, and why?

Data is key to making evidence-based decisions and helps practitioners understand the contexts in which they work.  Data can help practitioners understand the extent and type of the sexual violence problem where they are working; monitor any changes over time; understand the impact of programme activities, and provide specific information on the type of cases, number of cases and any patterns occurring.

I think anyone working in sexual violence programming needs to understand the data that they are collecting or using and why they are collecting it, rather than collecting it because it might be useful.  Data collection does not always have to mean conducting an extensive research study – data could be routinely collected through programming, monitoring and evaluation data or come from an initial assessment.

“One of my key messages is always to ask yourself: do I need to collect this data? Do I really need to do this study, or is it a ‘nice to have’? And, ultimately, will I be able to operationalise the findings?”

What are some key ethical considerations humanitarians need to keep in mind when collecting data on sexual violence?  

This is a great question, and ethics were at the forefront of many of the discussions we had when planning and conducting the study.  Whenever I teach as part of the Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies course, one of my key messages (despite being a researcher) is always to ask yourself: do I need to collect this data?  Do I really need to do this study, or is it a ‘nice to have’?  And, ultimately, will I be able to operationalise the findings?  The risks of collecting data can outweigh the benefits, and we should avoid collecting data just for the sake of it or because we feel we should.

I also encourage people to consider if they need to ask people about their individual experiences of sexual violence when collecting data.  Is it necessary to speak to survivors and hear their stories, potentially re-traumatising them, or can you ask general questions instead?  In the study I described above, it wasn’t relevant to directly ask people if they had experienced sexual violence themselves.  We gave people the opportunity to talk and share their experiences if they wanted to, but they weren’t prompted to do so.  Even though we weren’t specifically aiming to recruit survivors to the study, one of the lessons I have learned as a researcher is never to make assumptions: anyone could be a survivor of sexual violence, and you don’t know the background story and experiences of every interviewee.

When carrying out the study in South Sudan and CAR, we made sure that it was possible to refer survivors to services if needed, including providing a hotline number that people could call for assistance.  I also ensured that the research teams had the opportunity to debrief at the end of each day, particularly if there had been any difficult interviews they wanted to discuss. 

Have you carried out any remote data collection on sexual violence, and do you have any experiences you could share here?

Due to travel restrictions relating to Covid-19, I carried out some of the key informant interviews for the study over Skype.  The informed consent procedures and audio-recording of the interviews were the same over Skype as they would have been in person. Still, I was very aware that the recruitment of interviewees was limited to those I had contact details for and those who had a stable internet connection.

There are other potential ethical risks to consider when carrying out remote research on sexual violence, depending on the kinds of questions being asked.  Does the interviewee share a phone with anyone else, and could you put them at risk if someone else sees messages about the study or their call history?  Is the interviewee able to find a private place to talk, or could other people be listening in and overhear their stories?  If someone becomes distressed during a remote interview, have you put a referral pathway in place in case follow up or further support is required?

Anyone considering undertaking remote research during the ongoing pandemic should reflect upon whether they have managed to overcome challenges of recruitment bias and are not putting participants at increased risk due to the nature of the questions and have still put a referral pathway in place. 

The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian studies is offering the Executive Short Course “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies” various time a year, more information about the upcoming course (8-week online course from 29 September to 24 November 2021) is available here. The ICRC is one of the core course members and a member of its Steering Committee.