Researchers working on armed conflict and political violence grapple with many challenges over the course of their fieldwork. Among them are questions of ethics, power and representation, which must be carefully considered if researchers are going to mitigate the effects of enduring systems of power and privilege on their collection and dissemination of information. They need to reflect on how they will produce and represent information, who their audiences will be, and, ultimately, who will end up benefiting from their work.
These challenges are especially acute in the context of wartime sexual violence. Thanks to sustained media coverage and an increase in research, scholars and policy-makers now know that sexual violence is deployed frequently and often strategically in times of conflict. But this familiarity, which is often based in sensationalised and voyeuristic accounts of atrocity, does not necessarily imply a deep understanding of the various issues at stake. For example, many people believe that wartime sexual violence almost exclusively affects women, and remain largely unaware of the extent to which male-directed gendered violence is prevalent in war zones as well. Such partial knowledge can lead to unhelpful or even dangerous conclusions, and can for instance result in limited (or no) services for sexual violence survivors of all genders.
To help researchers navigate these pitfalls I have drawn together a selection of lessons learned and best practices for conducting research with male survivors of wartime sexual abuse. Many of these come out of my own research experience in Northern Uganda. Such work is never easy. But, with some careful thought and planning, the ethical challenges that arise during fieldwork in this branch of scholarship can be mitigated, circumvented and addressed.
A relational approach to research
It is often (incorrectly) assumed that, due to stigma, male survivors of sexual violence do not want to talk about their experiences. There is no doubt that all forms of sexual violence can be hard to talk about. But the prevailing silence surrounding sexual violence against men can be traced at least in part to questions of context and audience. A researcher’s main goal, therefore, should be to carefully develop spaces where survivors feel comfortable sharing their experiences. I attempted to do this through my work with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Northern Uganda. In addition to RLP’s sustained engagement with male survivors, Heleen Touquet’s work with the International Truth and Justice Project gives a further recent example of conducting this type of research and creating these spaces in ethically sensitive ways.
Ethically researching male sexual violence requires the relational approach as laid out by the late Lee Ann Fujii. This approach emphasises the importance of developing relationships with and between research participants that are guided by a humanist ethos and reflexivity. As such, research is conducted jointly and collaboratively with participants, rather than on them. In Uganda this unfolded primarily in two ways: first, through an institutional collaboration with RLP, to situate my study as part of sustainable collaborations with groups of male survivors; and second, through participatory workshop discussions as primary data collection tools.
The collaboration with RLP made it possible to conduct research with a support group of male sexual violence survivors in Northern Uganda called Men of Courage. RLP and the survivors’ group have a longstanding relationship with each other. This not only provided physical access to survivors, but more importantly it fostered trust between me as a researcher and the survivors as research participants. At the beginning this was trust by association. Due to their prolonged and sustained engagement with male survivors over a period of over eight years, RLP had already established a high level of mutual trust between the organisation, its staff, and the groups of survivors. My affiliation with them also made it possible to conduct the workshops in the presence of trained and experienced psycho-social service providers. The two colleagues with whom I worked most closely for the data collection were a trained counselor and a psychologist. Their expertise was, without a doubt, essential to addressing the ethical considerations – such as potential re-victimisation – that are found in the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for research with vulnerable populations in the context of sexual violence.
Participatory research seeks to shift the locus of power from the researcher to the researched, and thereby to contribute to a longer-term process of recalibrating power relations.
The second ingredient of this relational way of doing research was the design of the actual data collection techniques with male survivors. My engagement with these survivors' groups consisted primarily of four workshop discussions with a total of 46 male survivors, and guided by a participatory research design. Participatory research is intended to equip research participants with as much agency as possible during the research or data collection process. It also seeks to shift the locus of power from the researcher to the researched, and thereby to contribute to a longer-term process of recalibrating power relations. These principles are reflective of the goals and intentions of my study. In seeking to understand what justice means from the perspectives of male survivors, my study was intended as an exercise in knowledge production which built upon their immediate experiences and perspectives, rather than imposing classifications and languages from the outside.
In practice this meant that, instead of a guided interview or focus group discussion format, these workshops were more open-ended and thereby less confrontational. The conversation began with a question: 'what does justice mean to you?' Research participants then took the lead in discussing the meanings of justice, their views on it, and their experiences of engaging with (or not being able to engage with) justice mechanisms. My role was confined to that of a facilitator, in line with action research principles, while participants had as much agency as possible over the discussion and over what experiences to share and disclose. No direct questions were posed regarding survivors' experiences of sexual abuse and their specific gendered harms. However, many survivors positioned their perspectives on justice in relation to their prior experience of harm, and thereby reflected upon the violations they had survived.
The last workshop discussions also provided a space for members of the groups to come together and discuss the future development of their associations. This was included to make sure that the survivors also benefit and get something out of the gatherings, and it was designed as a process of 'returning to the community something of value, in forms determined by participants themselves'. After concluding my study I returned copies of what I produced to both RLP colleagues and the survivor groups.
My experience demonstrates how relational and participatory approaches can be used to actively involve research participants in the production of studies, and to conduct research with local communities, rather than on them. This situates researchers and research participants on more equal terms, a first step in an uncomfortable and longer-term process of recalibrating power relationships. It is important, however, to acknowledge that unequal power relations will nevertheless persist. This structural factor of research requires constant reflection and engagement. Only when we involve research participants more actively in the process of conducting research, and only when we critically reflect on our own positionalities as individual researchers embedded within unequal power structures – shaped by gendered, socio-economic and racial backgrounds – can we get closer to conducting ethically sensitive research that can be beneficial for all actors involved.