Survivors are researchers too
Updated: Apr 26
I was at an international conference presenting a paper on rape in conflict when a young researcher approached me privately to ask for advice on conducting fieldwork on gender-based violence. ‘The thing is’ she disclosed in a hushed voice ‘I am a survivor of sexual violence’.
She was obviously concerned about whether she was able to cope with the fieldwork given her own experience and finding no literature about this, she decided to approach me. At a time of growing awareness about the endemic nature of gender-based violence in our societies, there is significant interest among academics and particularly early career researchers to work on this topic. For many however, the choice to research sexual violence is driven not just by academic curiosity but rather by a personal experience of violence. For these academics the research itself becomes a continuation of their own quest for meaning.
I have been researching gender-based violence since the beginning of my academic career. The motivation behind this choice was the fact that I was a survivor too. I was just 4 years and 8 months when it happened, and the perpetrator was never found. My motivation for conducting this type of research was without doubt very personal. But in the light of the prevalence of gender based violence across the globe, my story and career trajectory is far from being unique. In the literature, I read many articles on the impact of researching gender based violence on survivors, as participants in research, with a particular focus on agency, empowerment, and voice. There is also significant body of literature that examine vicarious trauma for researchers working on gender based violence including SVRI (2015) Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Vicarious Trauma among Researchers of Sexual and Intimate Partners Violence. Yet, the situation of the survivor/researcher has not been considered enough in this literature. Because of the absence of guidance in this area, the survivor/researcher, for fear of being prevented from doing the research of their choice may not disclose to ethics review boards or their research team/ manager their own experience of violence. For survivors who worked hard to move beyond powerlessness to regain control over their own lives and destiny, this rejection can be traumatic.
Researching trauma as a survivor can be transformative
Based on my personal experience of research I want to share my reflections as a survivor/researcher on doing research on gender based violence. While the idea of survivors researching rape is maybe too raw and painful for many, survivors have many reasons why they want to research gender based violence. In my case, my interest in sexual violence and particularly my focus on justice was driven by my own experience of injustice. For me, researching how justice can be delivered for others felt like justice for myself. Any milestone achieved in the global movement for ending violence against women feels like a personal vindication and a step closer to justice. Many of the literature on the impact of participating in gender based violence studies on survivors - as participants- have established that the majority of these found the experience as personally beneficial (for example: Campbell and Adams 2009; Campbell et al. 2010; Decker et. al 2011). Based on my own experience I argue that, similar to these participants, the survivor/researcher may also find the research process as beneficial if not transformational. Many survivors of rape and sexual abuse feel alone, and isolated. These feelings are exacerbated by gender norms in patriarchal societies that condone gender based violence and devalue survivors. Yet, when the survivor/researcher embark on gender based violence research they can become part of a new community and no longer feel isolated. Researching gender based violence can also empower the survivor/researcher and transform their status of victim through reclaiming their voice, enabling them to help others and in doing so regaining a sense of living and hope.
Researching trauma as a survivor can also be particularly challenging at times
Yet, I must admit that doing research on this topic can be especially difficult for survivors and there are times where it will all get too personal. In choosing my research topics, I always tried to study contexts and cultures that are different from my own. I also decided not to research on sexual violence against children for fear of re-igniting my PTSD. However, in 2016, while I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I visited Kavumu, in South Kivu. Kavumu, the home of a small and largely poor community that had experienced horrific cases of sexual violence against 50 children mostly young girls under the age of five. The rapes were brutal requiring serious and medically complex surgical reparations. The rapes, as it later turned out were linked to a local MP and perpetrated by a militia group and involved black magic rituals. When I visited Kavumu, the community members were angry and raging about the repeated sexual attacks, the absence of adequate responses from the police, the courts, the government and the international community and the lack of economic and social support for the victims and their families. They felt that because they were poor and powerless, their plight has been ignored. As a result, many of them came to speak to me to raise the profile of this issue. Those who I met kept on emphasising the impact of rape was on their community. There was a woman among them who was angrily talking about how rape had ‘destroyed’ and ‘spoiled’ her daughter. She had a little girl, with bright intelligent eyes with her, who kept smiling throughout her mother’s rant. I asked why her mother had brought her and whether this was for a lack of other arrangements at a time where child abduction and rapes were common. Little did I know, until her mother pointed it, that this girl was one of Kavumu’s rape victims. I found it hard to comprehend how a child at the start of her life can be considered as spoiled, denied a chance in life and spoken about in her presence as if she was dead. And at that moment, I was her.
I was overcome with rage. Rape is rape, the deep violation, the physical and psychological injuries, but what would make a difference in the lives of survivors is to be surrounded by people who believe in them and support them throughout. My own parents while struggled to cope with what happened to me, they did not write me off as dead and supported me in my education. I realised how damaging the community’s attitudes towards rape can be for raped girls. How the social consequences of rape and particularly the stigmatisation and rejection reinforce the power and grip of rape over the victims. I felt that the children of Kavumu deserved better. Punishing the offenders while it is an important step is not enough. These children desperately needed to be given a chance, to feel valued and loved and for this to happen, a change of attitudes in Kavumu towards rape and rape victims was a must. Because of this I decided to speak with the community about my own story and how I survived rape, to argue that their girls could have a chance to succeed in life if they are supported and surrounded by love. The Kavumu experience caught me off guard and left me devastated afterwards. It brought it all back home. What happened in Kavumu, was too personal and it touched me so deeply that even when I finished the research, I was unable to write or talk about this incident. In reflecting on this, I am not sure what has triggered my reaction but perhaps it was the similarity but also the differences between what happened to that little girl and my own experience.
Evidence building on being a survivor/researcher in gender based violence research
Despite the Kavumu incident, as a survivor/researcher, I feel that for me the risk of trauma when involved in research on gender based violence remains minimal in comparison to the benefits that I feel when doing fieldwork and writing on this topic. This however may not be the case for everyone else. In the light of available data on the prevalence of sexual and gender based violence on a global level, we must acknowledge that many of the researchers on this topic are also survivors. We need to build evidence on how the research process impacts on the survivor/researcher not only in relation to risks of trauma but also in terms of its transformative potential and personal healing. With this evidence, survivors will feel 1) more confident to open up about their experience to ethics review boards, and research team/manager; 2) become better informed when deciding on whether to engage in research on gender based violence; 3) and feel more inclined to seek help when needed. We also need to understand what motivates survivors to become researchers; how prevalent is this phenomenon and to carefully study the ethical dimensions of being too personally involved in research on sexual and gender based violence in terms of voice, agency, and power dynamics. Until we have the research evidence and clear guidelines in place, most survivors/researchers will not feel safe to open up about their own experience and will continue to do their research unprotected. Hence, research evidence to explore the risks, benefits and ethical implications of being a survivor/ researcher in gender based violence research is urgently needed today.
Campbell, R. and Adams, A. E. (2009) Why do rape survivors volunteer for face-to-face interviews?: A meta-study of victims' reasons for and concerns about research participation. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24(3), 395-405.
Campbell, R., Adams, A. Sharon, Wasco, M. Aherns, C. E. & Sefl, T. (2010) What has it been like for you to talk with me today? The impact of participating in Interview Research on Rape Survivors. Violence Against Women, 16(1), 60-83.
Decker, S. E., Naugle, A. E., Carter Visscher, R., Bell, K. & Seifert, A. (2011) Ethical issues in research on sensitive topics: Participants’ experiences of distress and benefit. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 6(3), 55-64.
SVRI (2015) Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Vicarious Trauma among Researchers of Sexual and Intimate Partners Violence. Available at https://www.svri.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2016-06-02/SVRIVTgu...
The Guardian, Congolese fighters convicted of raping young girls in landmark case (13 December 2017). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/13/congolese-fighters-convicted-raping-toddlers-young-girls-landmark-case