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How to improve gender-based violence research?

Using participatory and creative methods to research gender-based violence in Low- and Middle-Income Countries is crucial to make sure that policy responds to survivors' needs.

Caroline Bradbury-Jones Siân Natasha Thomas Sanne Weber Nicole Robinson-Edwards
22 June 2020
A photograph of Noemi Hernández Sánchez, the eldest of her three children, was raped, strangled and left by the side of a highway adorns the fridge in the house where she lived in Tizayuca, Hidalgo State, Mexico on February 26, 2020
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Benedicte Desrus/SIPA USA/PA Images

Researching gender-based violence (GBV) can be a complicated task. Policymakers often prefer numbers, which are assumed to provide clear evidence of the scale of the problem. But quantitative analyses risk separating this information from its socio-cultural context and the lived experiences of such violence. To make sure that policy responds to survivors’ needs, it is crucial that their experiences are taken into account.

But qualitative research, especially when involving survivors of GBV, has its own challenges. It implies risks for the physical and emotional safety of participants, especially when survivors have to recount their experiences over and over again. It can also produce feelings of exploitation when researchers – or journalists for that matter – advance their careers with stories that attract widespread public attention, while leading to few changes to survivors’ situation. Hearing harrowing accounts of violence can also be challenging for researchers and lead to secondary traumatisation.

These risks are compounded when research takes place in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), where survivors often find themselves in dire socio-economic situations, and even more so when it is undertaken or funded by researchers or institutions from the Global North. The unequal power relations this creates and the increased risks of exploitation, paternalism or even neo-colonialism have been widely discussed, including on openDemocracy.

With these dilemmas in mind, our project aims to develop best practice guidelines on researching GBV in LMICs, with a specific focus on the use of participatory and creative methods. Participatory research has important potential to engage affected populations, develop local research capacity and redress the power imbalances that underpin violence and gender inequalities, which are also present in research on these issues. As co-researchers, participants can decide about what they want to research and what changes they want to see as a result.

The first step towards developing our guidelines was a scoping review of academic and grey literature on participatory methods to research GBV in LMICs, which was recently published. This scoping review, together with empirical research carried out in Kenya, formed the basis of an international workshop that was held last summer, in which we developed draft guidelines.

We are currently validating these in a participatory approach with our partners from Guatemala, Kenya and Uganda, and will formally launch them soon. In the meantime, we want to share the important insights we have learnt in this piece, since they can be helpful for others undertaking research on GBV around the world.

Key elements for ethical and participatory approaches to GBV research in LMICs

When we reviewed the existing literature, it was striking to learn that currently there are no specific protocols or best practice guidelines that focus explicitly on participatory and creative research in LMICs with survivors of GBV. There are guidelines on research with survivors of GBV and other protocols focused on participatory research more broadly, particularly in relation to Indigenous or marginalised communities.

But those protocols about research in LMICs considered participatory research as one possible method rather than as a basic principle for research in this context. We decided to review papers which dealt with at least two out of the three topics that our guidelines will address – participatory/creative methods, GBV, and Global South/Indigenous communities.

Risks of participating in a study on a sensitive topic can include repercussions from perpetrators and potential stigma in the community.

From these 44 papers, we identified a number of key recommendations that can be grouped in five broad domains: safety; contextual; relational; reflexive; and transformative. This is why these issues are crucial for researchers who want to conduct ethical research with survivors of GBV:

Participant and researcher safety should be a primary concern throughout every research process, but even more so in the context of GBV, because of the risks posed by perpetrators and potential community stigma when participation in a study focusing on a sensitive topic becomes apparent.

For example, women who suffer sexual violence in conflict are often stigmatised or even rejected by husbands, families or communities. It goes without saying that this often leads to poverty. Privacy, confidentiality and anonymity are therefore essential. Informed consent is a bare minimum in terms of ethical practice.

But these measures are not sufficient. Although sharing experiences of violence can feel cathartic for some survivors in some circumstances, others may feel re-traumatised by having to remember and recount these experiences. Better would be to offer psychosocial support to participants, or crisis intervention where there is urgent need. Ethical review processes at academic institutions often have a narrow view of ethical practice that focuses solely on physical and emotional safety during the interview and does not necessarily connect with the broader needs and priorities of survivors.

For example, legal and financial support can also impact wellbeing, especially since survivors often come from marginalised groups. Risk assessments are important tools to become aware of, mitigate and respond to safety risks. They should however not be made in a top-down manner, which can feel paternalistic for participants, but should instead be made together with the participants, who are often best placed to make decisions about their own safety. Taking adequate consideration of safety risks requires time and resources, which must be planned in advance.

From extraction to transformation

Research on GBV should be sensitive to the local and cultural context, especially because of the potential for stigma and sensitivity. This requires a diverse and representative research team from both the North and South, to allow for a deeper understanding of and relevance to the local context. Such representation requires the inclusion of diverse researchers at all levels within the research process, and not only in subsidiary or ‘support’ roles. This is essential to identify which issues are of most importance to local communities and bring about meaningful change. Collaborative research can also help to move research and analysis methods beyond Western paradigms and to guarantee the involvement of women and marginalised groups in the process of knowledge production.

Respect for community values and local leaders should be a core value of this research, and ideally collective consent would be obtained from the community to complement individual consent. Involving local leaders however also creates a risk of reinforcing social hierarchies and exclusions, especially in cultures where authority is maintained by men.

Making connections with a range of community members and ensuring representation in decision making of a wide group of individuals, including women, can help identify barriers and promote participation among more marginalised groups. Developing creative approaches to research participation can also help secure a broader range of participants, particularly when barriers of literacy or education prevent certain groups from participating. Creative research approaches can for example include photography, body mapping or theatre.

Participatory research aims to involve participants as equals in all stages of research and the decision making about it.

Research is based on relationships between researchers and members of the community of research interest. The way these relationships are conducted is essential. Participatory research aims to involve participants as equals in all stages of research and the decision making about it: from developing research questions and defining methods to disseminating findings.

Positive collaborative partnerships should be based on trust, transparency of aims and decision making, realistic expectations, honesty and integrity, as well as respect for diverse forms of knowledge and honouring of traditional cultural practices. This enables a process of mutual learning which recognises the skills and strengths of all involved and diminishes power inequalities between researcher and participants.

Ideas about Western researchers as ‘experts’ and ‘local researchers’ as data collectors should be abandoned, and instead the knowledge and capacities of participants and researchers in LMICs should be recognised as equal. Ideas about research impact can differ between researchers who work in different contexts, and between researchers and participants.

Academic researchers may prioritise publications, whereas practitioners are more likely to measure impact in practical terms, such as lower rates of violence, service improvement, or changing attitudes within the community. Outcomes need to be agreed collaboratively and may need to be tailored to different audiences and stakeholders. The collaboration and contributions of all of those involved should be recognised in all publications and where possible, co-authoring strategies should be sought.

A key goal of participatory research is transformation, through the generation of knowledge that can bring about positive social change.

Throughout the research process, reflexivity is a crucial tool for critically evaluating process, relationships and outcomes. This enables researchers and participants to develop an awareness of their own values, positionality and role in knowledge production. It also helps to reflect on the emotional content of the research and the impact of the work on researchers’ own relationships within and outside the research process. Keeping a field diary can be helpful for this. Collective reflexivity can help communities to identify evolving needs and priorities.

A key goal of participatory research is transformation, through the generation of knowledge that can bring about positive social change. Such transformation can range from immediate and individual benefits, to influencing policy and intervention, to far-reaching and transformative change.

The most important thing is that the change envisioned must be relevant to the aims of the local community and driven by their needs. The process of participatory research can also have a transformative effect in itself, for example through the (self-)empowerment of participants and communities through capacity-building, public education and improved quality of life. Therefore, participatory research is more than a method; it constitutes a philosophy and ethics in itself.

These elements provide the foundations for guaranteeing that research on gender-based violence in low and middle income countries is transformative, ethically grounded, locally owned and contextually responsive. Such research will not only help to uncover the experiences of those affected by GBV in low- and middle-income countries without doing harm, but contribute towards the transformation of their situation and the ending of gender-based violence.

These elements also form the basis for the best practice guidelines on research ethics for conducting participatory research with survivors of GBV, which we are developing in collaboration with our partners from Kenya, Guatemala and Uganda. Stay tuned for more news about these guidelines in the summer.

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