Researching violence against women and girls in South Sudan: ethical and safety considerations and strategies

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06/01/2020 12:00 am

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Globally, it is estimated that at least one out of every three women experiences violence by an intimate partner and/or non-partner throughout their lifetime. Women and girls are at even higher risk of violence in conflict and humanitarian crises. Although effort has expanded to build rigorous evidence and research on violence against women and girls (VAWG) among conflict-affected populations, methodological and ethical challenges remain. Basic ethical research practices are more challenging in conflict-affected populations and therefore require supplementary protections. While it is important to follow international ethical guidelines, in practice it is sometimes difficult depending on the setting. The aim of this paper is to present the main ethical challenges that occur when conducting research on VAWG in conflict and humanitarian settings, as well as potential strategies to address these challenges, based on a recent study carried out in South Sudan in 2016.

Case presentation

This paper provides an analysis utilizing the World Health Organization guidelines on doing research on VAWG and in conflict and humanitarian settings. The paper analyses four main components: the first component is a risk-benefit assessment, which includes identifying the research gap and evaluating feasibility with local stakeholders. The second component is a methodological and conceptual approach, which involves both local stakeholders and external experts in order to develop flexible methods that can be used in a volatile conflict setting. The third component is safety considerations, which emphasizes the importance of collaborating with a partner with strong local networks. The last component is analysis and research uptake. This component describes the importance of developing different research products, and disseminating them in a way to ensure they would be relevant and minimize any risks to the participants.


The study in South Sudan provided an excellent opportunity to put into practice the international ethical guidelines to carry out research on VAWG in conflict and humanitarian settings. The study enabled the research team to reflect on the guidelines and develop strategies to cope with new methodological and ethical challenges that arose in this complex setting, adapting the guidelines, as necessary. It demonstrated the necessity of developing a strong yet adaptable methodology with multiple alternative plans to solve any safety or ethical issues that occur throughout the entirety of the study. It also revealed the importance of collaborating with an implementing partner and gathering input from both local and international stakeholders on research design, analysis and uptake. Most importantly, the study in South Sudan emphasized that this type of complex research requires significant planning, in addition to substantial financial and human resources. Donor buy-in and flexibility is therefore essential

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