Ethical Consideration in Conducting Research on Violence Against Women
last updated November 1, 2003

Before beginning the process of human rights documentation of the problem of violence against women, it is important for advocates and anyone taking part in the research process to be familiar with the specific ethical issues raised by this kind of work. A World Health Organization (WHO) report, Putting Women First: Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence Against Women, highlights the need for specific precautions in undertaking such research:

Research on violence against women raises important ethical and methodological challenges in addition to those posed by any research. The nature of the topic means that issues of safety, confidentiality and interviewer skill and training are even more important than for other areas of research. It is not an exaggeration to say that the physical safety and psychological well-being of both the respondents and the research team can be put in jeopardy if adequate precautions are not taken.

From: Putting Women First: Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence Against Women, World Health Organization, WHO/FC FCH/H/G GWH/WH/0 01.1 (2001)(PDF, 31 pages).

Some of the ethical considerations that are implicated in research on violence against women are related to ensuring the safety of both the victims and researchers. The safety of all involved should be a paramount concern in undertaking human rights documentation. The need to ensure confidentiality is also an important aspect of creating a safe research environment. The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in its Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring, instructs UN human rights officers that their action or inaction "should not jeopardize the safety of victims, witnesses, or other individuals with whom they come into contact, or the sound functioning of the human rights operation." Likewise, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights stresses the critical importance of maintaining respect for the confidentiality of information at all times. Researchers should both assure interviewees and witnesses that the information will remain confidential and also take precautions to safeguard the identities of interviewees and witnesses in any recorded information. It may be useful for researchers to review general advocacy guidelines for services providers who work closely with victims of violence. While the roles of researchers and advocates are distinct, the need to provide confidential support for and ensure the safety of victims is equally important in both settings.

Other ethical precautions concern the need to minimize distress to the research team caused by the research process as well as ensure that researchers receive specialized training in the work they are undertaking. Researchers should be impartial, but should also be sensitive to the traumatic experiences an interviewee may have suffered. Specialized training should instruct researchers in the kinds of scenarios they will likely encounter and also give them instructions in how to phrase interview questions so as to minimize harm. The World Health Organization report also recommends that researchers be prepared to provide women with information about local services and sources of support. It is not unlikely that in the course of an interview a victim could ask the interviewer for concrete help. The WHO report suggests that before conducting research, the research team meet with potential providers of support and discuss with them the types of services they can provide. It may then be useful for the research team to create a list of available resources to provide to respondents. Finally, the report suggests that the list itself be small and easy to conceal and contain information about a number of services, not only those that relate to violence against women.