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default WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Researching, Documenting and Monitoring Sexual Violence in Conflict

Author: World Health Organization; Department of Gender, Women and Health
Institution: World Health Organization (WHO)
Publication Date:  2007
Related Categories: Gender; Humanitarian


There is increasing concern around the levels of sexual violence in emergencies, natural disasters and armed conflict, and the associated human rights and health issues.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) having recognised this, has produced a paper to highlight some key recommendations for those involved in planning, conducting, funding, reviewing protocols for, approving or supporting information collection on sexual violence in humanitarian settings.  The WHO notes these recommendations are to be used in parallel with existing codes of practice currently available.  However, this paper importantly fills a gap by focussing on the particular issues that arise during the collection of information about sexual violence specifically in emergencies. It is therefore of interest not only to staff involved in sexual violence inquiries but to all researchers, programme planners, funders, ethics review committees, ethicists, managers and staff working on or in humanitarian contexts.

Key Points:

Sexual violence is defined by the WHO using the definition below, which is not to be used as a legal definition:
“Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”

The key lesson drawn from this document is policy makers and practioners must learn more about the contexts in which sexual violence occurs in order to best prevent and respond to it.  However, in emergency situations, which are characterised by instability, insecurity, fear, dependence and loss of autonomy, as well as a breakdown of law and order, and widespread disruption of community and family support systems, gathering information on incidents of sexual violence poses additional unique challenges above and beyond those already found in more stable environments.  Therefore, the WHO maintains that the tools and methodologies selected to investigate sexual violence must be aligned with the context analysis which has previously taken place.

A key issue discussed in this paper is the need to recognise the ethical and safety considerations to the victims, communities and individuals researching, documenting and monitoring sexual violence.  The purpose of conducting such work as data collection on sexual violence and how best to do so must be continuously assessed; where-by ensuring that the benefits of retrieving such information out-weigh the potential risks associated to the victim, communities involved and those conducting the work.

Helpfully, the WHO have developed 8 key recommendations to guide those researching, documenting and monitoring sexual violence in emergencies. See page.9 for a summary of these.

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