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Research ethics

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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Research on social issues must observe ethical principles so as to avoid causing harm. This is even more crucial when working with survivors of violence, who may experience safety risks or extreme psychological stress when being interviewed, and children, whose special vulnerability requires additional protection. See also Adhering to ethics in campaigning in this module.


Key safety and ethical recommendations

The World Health Organization (Ethical and safety recommendations..., 2007) proposes the following recommendations (adapted) which focus on research on sexual violence. Based on universal ethical and safety principles, they can be applied and should be observed in any research on VAW:

–        The benefits to respondents or communities of documenting violence must be greater than the risks to respondents and communities.

–        Information gathering and documentation must be done in a manner that presents the least risk to respondents, is methodologically sound, and builds on current experience and good practice.

–        Basic care and support for survivors/victims must be available locally before commencing any activity that may involve individuals disclosing information about their experiences of violence.

–        The safety and security of all those involved in information gathering about violence is of paramount concern and in emergency settings in particular should be continuously monitored.

–        The confidentiality of individuals who provide information about violence must be protected at all times.

–        Anyone providing information about  violence must give informed consent before participating in the data gathering activity.

–        All members of the data collection team must be carefully selected and receive relevant and sufficient specialized training and ongoing support.

Additional safeguards must be put into place if children [i.e. persons under the age of 18] are to be the subject of information gathering. Every effort must be made to anticipate and prevent or minimize harmful consequences:

–        Seek advice from experts in collecting information from and working with children, as well as people familiar with the culture and the setting in which the inquiry is to take place.

–        Draw on the emerging body of literature and experience regarding how best to work with children and young people. There are many innovative and engaging means of working with them and where relevant these should be employed. One example is through the use of comics: The comic book “Has it Happened to You?” by Raising Voices talks about violence against children. It shows common forms of violence that can take place and actions children affected by violence can take. Another comic booklet “Breaking Barriers: Safe Schools: Every Girl’s Right by Amnesty International relates the story of a school girl who successfully rallied fellow students’ support to end violence against girls in their school.

–        Consult with community members and parents, guardians or caregivers to anticipate all possible consequences for children involved in the information gathering process and properly address them.

–        Advise children, as well as their parents, guardians or caregivers, of the referral services and protection mechanisms that are available to them.

–        Be prepared to deal with very serious or complex issues and needs.

The WHO /Path guide Researching Violence against Women (Ellsberg & Heise, 2005) provides comprehensive guidance on effective and ethically sound research. In addition to the principles listed above, it points out that community-level research is an intervention in local people’s lives, and therefore utter care must be taken to draw maximum benefit from the research for the local people who have participated in it and to avoid further damage.