Syria Justice and Accountability Center is currently working to improve efforts to effectively document sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), including its documentation strategy and coordination with different types of SGBV responders.
Witness, a nonprofit organization that trains people on filming human rights-related video, recently released a Guide on how to film interviews with survivors of SGBV. The Guide provides several takeaways on best practices, which have been useful as SJAC develops overall SGBV guidelines. Although SJAC itself does not film interviews as its main activity, we work with many on-the-ground documenters who contribute videos and interviews to our database. As many of you in Syria or the refugee camps may be using film in your own documentation efforts, SJAC recommends reading the full Guide and watching some of the videos on the Witness YouTube channel.
Meanwhile, here are SJAC’s top 7 takeaways adapted to the Syrian context:
1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Before approaching any survivor of SGBV, have a clear idea about why you want this information and what you’re going to use it for. Are your objectives worth the potential risks to safety or the mental state of the survivor? Also, prepare questions ahead of time, and make sure the questions are tailored to further the aims of your project. For example, if you are documenting human rights violations for use in future prosecutions, your questions should aim to determine whether the elements of war crimes have been met. Remember to also prepare the survivor by providing him/her with all the details about the project ahead of time.
2. Be Respectful and Ethical
A survivor who is coming forward to share his/her story is doing a very brave thing. Be mindful of that. Bring tissues, water, and a mirror (for film). And do not let your line of questioning further the stigma surrounding sexual violence which is prevalent worldwide, but especially in conservative countries like Syria. Make sure your questions do not blame the survivor and be conscious of word choice. Do not use slang for sexual organs and call rape what it is – rape! Not “sex.” Also, do your best to arrange for a psychiatric or sexual assault specialist to be available after the interview.
3. Pay Close Attention to Security Concerns
Syria is a conflict zone, and there are grave dangers for both you and the survivor, including retaliation. Choose a safe and quiet location that ensures the survivor’s confidentiality, and avoid long travel due to the risks. Also, it might be necessary to hide the survivor’s identity, so index your documentation with a system that uses numbers instead of names. If shooting video, conceal the survivor’s identity by blurring or shadowing his/her face
4. Document Informed Consent
Get the survivor’s informed consent in writing or on film, if you are using video. Informed consent is different from consent. In order to give true informed consent, the survivor must be aware of all pertinent issues, including who the potential audience will be and all potential uses of the documentation. For videos, even an upload to a discrete website can spread to a million YouTube views! As an example, SJAC tells survivors that they may be contacted in the future for prosecutions or other justice mechanisms.
5. Practice Calm and Patience
Telling a stranger about a traumatic event like sexual assault is not an easy task, and it might take some people time to go through the questions. Take breaks if needed and listen patiently. If the survivor wants to restart or speak about an unrelated topic, do not get exasperated. Also, do not show disgust at the thorny details. It may re-inflict trauma for the survivor.
6. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Leading questions that direct the survivor to the answer you want to hear or questions with yes and no answers will not get you the information you need and will result in a bland video. It is important to ask questions that will get the survivor talking. “What,” “How,” and “Tell me” prompts work well. Before ending, also be sure to ask if the survivor has anything else to add.
7. Get Feedback from the Survivor
After the interview is over, ask the survivor how it went. You want to constantly improve, so who better to ask than the person who just experienced your process? If you’re filming, it is also a good idea to show the video to the survivor before sharing it with others. In Syria, staying in touch is more difficult, but do your best to keep the survivor updated.
SJAC is committed to implementing all these takeaways in its own work, and working with others to promote best practices in SGBV documentation. Please stay tuned for updates, and contact SJAC at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to discuss the potential for collaboration.