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New Guide Gives Good Advice on Interviewing Rape Survivors

UK Program Behind the Guide Needs Better Strategy to End Rape During Wartime

The UK government signaled this week that it wants to reignite its initiative designed to end rape during war. As such, members of the initiative and their partners are seeking input for a guide on interviewing victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The guide is named the “Murad Code” after Nadia Murad, a Yezidi activist.

Nadia Murad, featured in On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach.

Creating the guide is a good first step, but the UK program, called Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), should also prioritize long-term support for survivors as well as accountability for commanders and officials complicit in this abuse.

During conflict, rape is often tolerated or encouraged to dehumanize “enemy” civilians – to injure, punish, and display mastery.

My work often involved interviewing survivors of sexual assault. In my experience, survivors may want to be interviewed in hope of helping other victims or their community. But interviews, by journalists, activists, or researchers, can stigmatize, shame, and be psychologically harmful if done badly, and interviewees can feel bitterly disappointed when they see no concrete results.

A carefully structured interview, in privacy and with a compassionate translator, can provide a chance to be heard. But some of my interviews have been rushed because of security concerns, others may have been too long and draining as I tried to understand and document a complicated story. With hindsight, in some cases perhaps I could have shown widespread sexual violence with fewer interviews.

Human Rights Watch has a consent process, but I never knew how my interviewees felt the next day, or now, about the interviews. Taking more time with each interview, ensuring referrals to services, and focusing on the quality of interviews, not the quantity, are important suggestions included in the code.

The UK program, PSVI, launched with pomp and celebrity fanfare in 2014, promising “the eradication of rape as a weapon of war.” But it has not delivered. It lacked strategy, did not have a survivor-centric approach, and offered problematically short-term funding to survivor projects, according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. It is not clear how much funding cuts – from £15 million to £2 million per year between 2014 and 2019 – are to blame.

The Murad Code should help people interviewing survivors to better support them. But if the UK government is really serious about renewing its commitment to survivors, it needs a well-resourced strategy with their long-term needs at its core.


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