Ethics for Qualitative Research on Violence Against Women

Violence against women, defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women,” is a pervasive public health and human rights issue (World Health Organization, 2017). Research around violence against women, and violence research in general, seeks to understand the prevalence of the issue and experience of victims and perpetrators with the ultimate goal of contributing to a response. Given the sensitive nature of this topic, conducting qualitative research around violence against women (VAW) requires special considerations with implications for participant confidentiality, safety and wellbeing. However, qualitative research with VAW survivors also has the potential to contribute to emotional processing and healing of participants.

Minimizing Risk

Prior to beginning data collection, researchers needs to establish protocols for how to protect participant confidentiality while balancing researcher obligations to minimize risk to participants, ensure wellbeing and adhere to local laws around mandatory reporting.. While participant confidentiality is often a critical component in most research, VAW qualitative researchers must take into account ways in which participants may experience stigmatization or reprisals from their abusers, family members or others complicit in the abuse as a result of study participation. Steps need to be taken to ensure privacy during data collection, data sharing and dissemination of results (Ellsberg, Heise, Pena, Agurto, & Winkvist, 2001). Data collection should occur in a private space where participants may speak freely without fear of being overheard, and names, locations and other identifying information should be anonymized to protect participants when sharing data or disseminating results.

When collecting VAW data with minors, qualitative researchers must investigate the mandatory reporting laws and obligations in their study context. These laws vary across countries and states. There are many arguments for and against mandatory reporting of child maltreatment, exploration of which is beyond the scope of this post (for more information, see Allen, 2009). Regardless, disclosure of research teams’ duties of care should form part of informed consent processes. Children and parents must be informed of mandatory reporting laws as well as the particular study’s referral protocols to ensure autonomy in the research process. Given that some young people may be abused by the guardians charged with giving consent to research participation, researchers should strategize creative mechanisms to include contact information for any service agencies during the consent processes to ensure that individuals in abusive situations may access help should they be excluded from the research study for any reason.

Maximizing Benefits

Many fear that research participation will cause distress or even re-traumatization amongst participants. The central question that researchers must answer is: do subjects experience increased distress as a result of research participation disproportionate to the distress felt in daily living? Most researchers argue that while certain participants may experience heightened distress initially, these experiences are short lived (Ellsberg et al., 2001). Importantly, qualitative research, particularly interviews, offers the opportunity for VAW survivors to disclose and process their experiences with an empathetic listener. For some, this is a unique opportunity. To facilitate positive emotional processes, qualitative researchers should address power dynamics between themselves and their participants and, ideally, give control over to participants to guide the encounter. Given that VAW strips women and girls of power and control, often over their very bodies, providing an opportunity to guide the discussion about one’s experience of trauma can be empowering. Feminist interviewing techniques offer helpful guidance for these situations and have been shown to facilitate positive experiences for participants (Campbell, Adams, Wasco, Ahrens, & Sefl, 2010).

Qualitative research on VAW also offers the opportunity to connect participants with services. Researchers should establish a protocol to guide referrals of subjects to counseling, health and legal services should they desire. These referrals should form part of the closure of data collection regardless of whether a study participant has disclosed specific experiences with VAW or not. This may be unnecessary depending on the study design, however in cases of conducting research with a wide array of participants that may or may not be survivors of VAW, providing referral information to all participants mitigates the possibility that outsiders may infer experiences of violence based on whether a participant receives information or not.

In resource-poor settings, local systems may be unable to provide sufficient response to cases, as was the case in Devries et al.’s (2015) study in Uganda. In their case, the research team decided to hire a professional counselor to provide immediate support to subjects. This service provision falls outside the purview of the ethical obligation to mitigate harm resulting from research participation specifically, given that the emotional response stemmed from the experience of violence rather than disclosure to researchers. However, certain ethicists argue that investigators are obligated to provide services beyond those immediately required for the study when they possess the expertise, resources, and are free from competing obligations (Merritt, Taylor, & Mullany, 2010).

In conclusion, qualitative research on VAW offers opportunities for participants to discuss experiences in an empathetic environment and be connected to services, Researchers, however, must protect participants’ confidentiality and privacy, to the extent they are able.

 This week’s post was written by guest blogger, Robyn Singleton, who is a PhD student in the Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methodologies program at the University of Georgia. Robyn works as a Public Health Program Associate at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, where she conducts narrative research around HIV and gender-based violence and evaluations of community-based programs. She is particularly interested in the opportunities qualitative research affords for translating research findings into public health practice to address gender-based violence.


Allen, B. (2009). Are researchers ethically obligated to report suspected child maltreatment? A critical analysis of opposing perspectives. Ethics & Behavior, 19(1), 15-24.

Campbell, R., Adams, A. E., Wasco, S. M., Ahrens, 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.

Devries, K. M., Child, J. C., Elbourne, D., Naker, D., & Heise, L. (2015). “I never expected that it would happen, coming to ask me such questions”: Ethical aspects of asking children about violence in resource poor settings. Trials, 16(1), 516. doi:10.1186/s13063-015-1004-7

Ellsberg, M., Heise, L., Pena, R., Agurto, S., & Winkvist, A. (2001). Researching domestic violence against women: methodological and ethical considerations. Studies in Family Planning, 32(1), 1-16.

Merritt, M. W., Taylor, H., & Mullany, L. C. (2010). Ancillary care in community-based public health intervention research. American Journal of Public Health, 100. doi:10.2105/ajph.2009.168393

World Health Organization (November 2017). Violence against women. Retrieved from



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