In Autumn 2017, the Conjugal Slavery in War collaborative research project distributed an online ‘justice survey’ to its partners in six conflict affected and post-conflict countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, and Uganda. We wanted to learn how community-based organisations (CBOs) in these countries understand and represent the justice needs of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). We wanted to see how they assess different avenues of redress for survivors, and how they decide which policies, processes, and institutions work well, which are not helpful, and why. More abstractly, we wanted to gain a more nuanced and complex understanding of what justice means in post-conflict contexts.
The first time I presented our preliminary findings, someone in the audience asked why we surveyed CBOs rather than ask survivors directly about their conceptions of justice and justice needs. It is an important question. Abstraction from the voices and perspectives of survivors can serve to silence or misrepresent their voices and experiences, as can the significant stigma that accompanies sexual and gender-based crime. Are we not inadvertently reinforcing these processes by asking representatives of survivors to speak about justice needs?
Perhaps, so it is crucial to be clear about our goals. For better or worse, frontline workers are already tasked with representing survivors in many places, including policy consultations, criminal trials, and service provision meetings. Their access and claims to expertise give their perceptions weight. For this reason, CBO’s understandings of justice needs and priorities must also be understood. This is what we set out to study.
Ask yourself: who do I help, who do I harm?
We must be cautious about only ever focusing on the stories of survivors for other reasons as well. The experiences of SGBV survivors are being sought with increasing frequency by researchers, journalists, NGOs, and politicians. In many ways this is a positive development. However we must be careful not to overburden survivors, and it is ethically questionable to contribute to a political climate in which stories of sexual violence become currency to advance careers. Furthermore, in situations where survivors will later testify in court, repeated interviews and documentation may make it more difficult to hold perpetrators accountable.
There are, of course, many circumstances in which valuable and important relationships can be built between researchers and survivors. Likewise, truth telling practices can help survivors to heal while contributing to positive change in communities. But reflexive feminist methods demand that we put the best interests of participants first. This means always questioning whether asking someone to share their story is really necessary, what alternative sources might be available, and how we can best understand and draw attention to the experiences and needs of survivors without contributing to further exploitation and possible trauma.
Women and girls are often an afterthought when stories of war and conflict are crafted.
We can demonstrate respect for survivors of SGBV by taking seriously the concerns and priorities of those who support them, often at great personal risk. Regions where SGBV occurs frequently and with impunity are also regions where CBOs face threats or silencing by governments and militaries. Better understanding the challenges CBOs face with different justice mechanisms allows us to move away from individual experience and instead to analyse systemic and structural barriers to achieving justice. By amplifying the perspective of justice workers, we demonstrate a respect for their expertise which in turn signals a commitment to working collaboratively to address gendered violence.
CBOs working on SGBV are, after all, also waiting for some semblance of justice for the survivors they support. The participants in our justice survey were able to identify important problems with the international criminal justice system, such as the remoteness of proceedings and the lack of contextual specificity, that made that justice more difficult to obtain. They also raised issues within local justice mechanisms, such corruption and social status, that they saw as protecting perpetrators.
Pieces within a complex landscape
In considering methods and ethics in research, it is important to recognise that academic research and the work of CBOs exist within hierarchical and politically complex environments. CBOs are tasked with navigating a political climate in which funding is tied to a politics of representation that demands certain stories and constructions of gendered violence.
Women and girls are often an afterthought when stories of war and conflict are crafted, and their inclusion is frequently little more than a way to demonstrate the scale of atrocity or the dire straits of victims. In a global context where attention spans are limited, and the 24-hour news cycle dominates, claiming space, funding, and political attention for the needs of survivors is a challenge. Justice workers are political actors both at local and international levels, tasked with drawing attention to the needs of survivors and telling their stories in a way that garners support and ‘buy-in’. How organisations present the needs of survivors to policy makers, I-NGOs, and international research projects thus tells us more than what survivors need. Their presentation is a window onto the needs and concerns that justice workers think are most important to present to an international audience.
The opportunities arising from such research are two-fold. At one level, we can learn a great deal about complex and nuanced conceptions of justice and unmet justice needs. At a second level, we can learn about the strategic priorities for CBOs as they attempt to navigate international research and advocacy networks in order to draw attention to the people they seek to support.
In reflecting on the ethical implications of the methods we as researchers choose to employ in our work, it becomes apparent that no choice we make is neutral. Nor should it be. The decisions about whom we talk to, when and where, and how we analyse and disseminate these results are all political actions with implications far beyond our individual projects and careers. For these reasons, conversations about methodological concerns are crucial for understanding different perspectives on conducting ethical research. These conversations, like our research itself, must include as many diverse voices as possible.