Expert Notes on Documenting SGBV: Minimizing Harm

This is an important note featured in our newly-released section to the Video As Evidence Field Guide: Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. To read more about preparing to film for SGBV accountability, download the full section here

by Kim Thuy Seelinger, Director, Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration at Washington University in St. Louis


In any work related to unearthing or recording survivors’ experiences, one is often reminded to ‘do no harm.’ It is a fundamental ethical principle upon which other important objectives like ‘providing care,’ ‘pursuing justice’ or even ‘seeking truth’ can be built. However, what the principle requires in practice is not always clear.

What does ‘harm’ even mean and who decides? What measure of ‘harm’ or ‘discomfort’ is acceptable in order to achieve a greater good? Who decides?

Take, for example, a service provision context. One form of harm is psychological: discomfort, or even re-traumatization. A survivor may accept some level of discomfort in disclosing their experience of SGBV to a service provider because that discomfort feels outweighed by the benefits they expect to receive from that interaction—perhaps speaking of SGBV despite personal discomfort will enable the survivor to access urgently needed healthcare or shelter. A survivor’s ‘harm calculus’ may be influenced by their motivation to disclose SGBV: there is a perceived benefit. And even in these situations, service providers who offer a direct benefit should still take precautions to avoid ‘doing harm.’ In sitting with a survivor, they are often able to build rapport, pick up on nuance, use familiar terms, read through the lines to understand discomfort and fear. The existence of discomfort and fear does not mean one must avoid the conversation—there is often, after all, a benefit the survivor seeks. Using best practices including active listening, trauma-informed care, and effective referral mechanisms, service providers can minimize psychological harm in their interactions with survivors of SGBV.

Harm can of course also be more tangible. Survivors who reveal their experiences may be abandoned by spouses, rejected from communities, punished for (being forced into) sexual relations outside of marriage. They may be threatened with retaliation. They may lose their jobs. To understand the barriers to, and consequences of, disclosing SGBV requires contextual knowledge of a society, culture, or space. Many service providers, if from the local community themselves, already have an understanding of these forces. Awareness of these risks requires them to engage in additional layers of precaution: ensure confidentiality, be able to provide or refer a survivor to protection or shelter.

So, what does this mean for frontline documenters?

Even when SGBV crimes are perpetrated on a widespread and systematic scale, these crimes are often largely ‘invisible’ in a traumatized society. Exposure by a video crew can shed light on these hidden crimes, thus contributing to a broader justice effort.

However, exposure can also bring about significant risk of harm to a survivor, particularly in a community where SGBV is stigmatized or where perpetrators may retaliate with impunity.

There may be consequences not just for the survivor but for their loved ones as well.

Frontline documenters should make every effort to understand and ensure that there is indeed a good reason for documenting SGBV in the first place—and, hopefully, a benefit to the survivor or their community. Where this is the case, documenters should then avoid causing harm when carrying out fact-finding work, monitoring situations, and collecting evidence of SGBV crimes, including visual evidence. This also means constantly balancing the need for information with the potential risk of harm to those being filmed or those who provide access to such information. In some circumstances, this may mean forgoing the collection of information altogether.

If in doubt, do not photograph or film.

For more details on important ethical considerations and how to apply the ‘Do No Harm’ principle to documenting SGBV, see ‘Chapter 7: Do No Harm’ in the PSVI Protocol, here 


For more expert notes, download the full section here.

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