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Preventing exploitation, exclusion and extraction: the ethics of gender-based violence research

Northern researchers should realise that they have a responsibility towards their local counterparts, both in terms of safety and emotional well-being.

Caroline Bradbury-Jones Siân Natasha Thomas Wangu Kanja Sanne Weber
27 October 2020
Photograph of a victim seen at a protest against femicide and violence against women on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Mexico City, Mexico on November 25, 2019
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Benedicte Desrus/SIPA USA/PA Images

Research with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) is important. Understanding their experiences of violence and the impact this has on their lives will help to design effective policies to end this violence.

But research with survivors also brings potential risks, such as retraumatization, safety issues and feelings of exploitation. These challenges are magnified if research is done by Northern researchers, because of the power inequalities that exist between researcher, participants and research partners.

To overcome these risks, we have worked together with partners from Guatemala, Kenya and Uganda to develop guidelines which will help researchers, participants and organisations involved in research, to make sure that research is carried out in ethical ways, enabling it to contribute to the transformation of survivors’ lives and the elimination of GBV around the world.

Why such guidance is necessary became clear to us after we conducted empirical research on GBV research practice in Nairobi, Kenya in June 2019. We spoke with representatives of civil society organizations, women’s institutions, researchers and activists involved in diverse ways in research with or support for GBV survivors. Their experiences of participating in, conducting or facilitating research showed that, unfortunately, research carried out or funded by institutions from the Global North far too often is an exploitative experience for participants.

The ways in which research is conceptualised, undertaken and published tend to reflect the interests of the Northern researchers and their institutions, instead of centring the needs or wellbeing of the participants and the involved institutions in LMICs.

Research as exploitation

Partly as a result of how funding processes work, researchers tend to start a research project with a pre-defined research question, which does not always reflect the interests and priorities of research partners or participants. Often such research questions respond to so-called hypes: topics that, temporarily or more permanently, attract high levels of media, public or humanitarian attention.

Sexual violence tends to be a global hype, and the case of the sexual violence that occurred during post-election turmoil in Kenya is no exception to this. A researcher we interviewed remembered one of her participants complaining about researchers’ lack of interest in doing research that responds to their needs: One of the people asked me, ‘Why didn’t you sit with us and develop this research with us?’ and even asked us, ‘Is sexual violence the issue?’

Research could have a more positive impact on the lives of those participating in it, if participants were involved much earlier on in the research process, ideally at the funding application stage, to make sure research addresses actual needs rather than hypes that attract media and funders’ interest. This requires researchers – and funders – to allow for longer periods of time to establish rapport and define needs and mutual interests.

For participants, gatekeepers and locally hired researchers (who often belong to NGOs or research institutions), it is important to have clear expectations about what their roles are. Ideally, they are all involved in all stages of the process.

Participants and partners from LMICs can learn from the academic and methodological expertise of Northern researchers, while the latter have much to learn from the contextual and cultural knowledge and analytical skills of LMIC partners, which can greatly enrich the research process and results. Unfortunately, this mutual exchange is not always the case.

Survivors are often treated in extractive ways too. Researchers tend to be interested in talking to those who have the most spectacular or ‘attractive’ story, or those best able to talk about it eloquently.

More often than not, LMIC partners are treated as mere data collectors, who tend to receive lower salaries, even though they are exposed to higher safety risks and the emotional burden of doing research on a sensitive topic such as GBV. A member of a women’s rights organization explained: When I worked on the post-election violence case in 2007 it was so traumatic. Every day you would sit and speak to victims. Then we went back to the office and we just couldn’t work. After some time, a counselling support system was implemented and then we realized we were not fine. Northern researchers should realise that they have a responsibility towards their local counterparts, both in terms of safety and emotional well-being.

Survivors are often treated in extractive ways too. Researchers tend to be interested in talking to those who have the most spectacular or ‘attractive’ story, or those best able to talk about it eloquently. As a result, frequently the same limited number of participants end up being involved in research. Unfortunately, research often has little direct tangible benefit for those participating in it.

An academic researcher told us: someone will tell you: ‘you are the 50th person interviewing me; what are you going to do differently?’ People have come here but they don’t see any results so they’re just tired from the process. It’s like they’re being used and they are not getting anything out of it. The economic inequality between Northern researchers and institutions and their partners and participants in LMICs, who may depend financially on research participation, makes it hard for them to speak up about this, which is a crucial step to change such unethical practice.

Researchers should be aware of these dynamics, consider carefully who to interview, whether more participatory approaches to research are possible, and even whether primary data is always needed. They should enable better communication processes with participants and research partners, to ensure an accountable research process.

Guaranteeing research impact

Researchers from the North, researchers from LMICs and participants might all have different ideas about what meaningful dissemination and impact looks like, and tensions might exist between these perceptions. Academic researchers are often mainly focused on publishing academic, peer-reviewed articles. These may however have few benefits for participants or the organisations that act as gatekeepers or facilitators of research.

Academic publications tend to only recognize those authors who designed the research, thus excluding researchers from LMICs, even though they sometimes did not only the fieldwork but also much of the writing. Ideally, all those who contributed to the research are recognized in all publications.

Furthermore, academic publications are only one outlet for research results, which moreover target a very specific audience of other academics. For participants it may be more interesting if the research results are also communicated to their local communities or policymakers. Engaging local media may therefore be important, but also the production of brief leaflets, or short videos or animation films can be crucial.

Disseminating research findings more widely requires producing locally accessible and meaningful research outputs, avoiding jargon and translating findings into different local languages. This might be challenging and time-consuming for academic researchers, but is a crucial step to make research more meaningful for participants and to actually effect change on the ground. Time and budget must therefore be made available for these steps.

The expertise of LMIC partners is essential, as a health rights practitioner explained: It’s about offering practical recommendations, because that’s often a challenge where the researchers are so academic, you need someone else to be able to assist, to show you how this can be useful for the survivors and the people working with the survivors. Collaboration is the key.

The ENGAGE guidelines

These and other recommendations can be found in the guidelines we recently launched, aimed to Ensure No ‘Grab And Go’ Extractive Research (ENGAGE). The ENGAGE Guidelines provide an evidence-informed framework for participatory research on GBV in LMICs.

The framework for a survivor-centred approach prioritizes survivors’ safety and participation and provides guiding questions for researchers who are planning and undertaking research.

They can serve as a toolkit for researchers, policymakers and research funders in the Global North, and consist of three parts: The ENGAGE principles describe the importance of sensitivity, responding to risks, and ensuring collaboration and multiple benefits.

The framework for a survivor-centred approach prioritizes survivors’ safety and participation and provides guiding questions for researchers who are planning and undertaking research.

And finally, they provide recommendations for the core elements of a research plan, to put these ethical considerations into practice. In the participatory spirit of the ENGAGE guidelines, we encourage you to reflect on their use and we welcome feedback, so that we can continue to improve them in our efforts to contribute to the elimination of GBV around the world.

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