Humanitarian Health Action

WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Researching, Documenting and Monitoring Sexual Violence in Emergencies


10 August 2007

Sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies, such as armed conflict and natural disasters, is a serious, even life-threatening, public health and human rights issue. Growing concern about the scale of the problem has led to increased efforts to learn more about the contexts in which this particular form of violence occurs, its prevalence, risk factors, its links to HIV infection, and also how best to prevent and respond to it. Recent years have thus seen an increase in the number of information gathering activities that deal with sexual violence in emergencies. These activities often involve interviewing women about their experiences of sexual violence.

It is generally accepted that the prevalence of sexual violence is underreported almost everywhere in the world. This is an inevitable result of survivors’ well-founded anxiety about the potentially harmful social, physical, psychological and/or legal consequences of disclosing their experience of sexual violence. In emergency situations, which are characterized by instability, insecurity, fear, dependence and loss of autonomy, as well as a breakdown of law and order, and widespread disruption of community and family support systems, victims of sexual violence may be even less likely to disclose incidents.

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