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Key informant interviews

Interviews are one of the most commonly used forms of data collection for needs assessments, research, monitoring, and evaluation. Such interviews may be part of safety audits, focus groups, or human rights monitoring.

However, when conducting interviews about violence against women the interviewer must take special care. When interviewing survivors of violence, or others about violence against women, ethical considerations should be of primary concern.

The following important ethical and safety considerations come into play whenever interviewing survivors or others about violence against women (World Health Organization, 2003):

  • Do no harm: Treat each woman and the situation as if the potential for harm is extreme until there is evidence to the contrary. Do not undertake any interview that will make a woman’s situation worse in the short term or longer term.
  • Know your subject and assess the risks: Learn the risks associated with violence against women and/or any particular woman's or girl’s case before undertaking an interview.
  • Prepare referral information: Be prepared to provide information in a woman's native language and the local language (if different) about appropriate legal, health, shelter, social support, and security services, and to help with referral, if requested. Don’t offer advice or make promises that you cannot fulfill.
  • Adequately select and prepare interviewers, interpreters, and co-workers: Ensure that interviewers are trained on the dynamics of violence against women and the potential for secondary trauma. Weigh the risks and benefits associated with employing interpreters, co-workers, or others, and develop adequate methods for screening and training.
  • Ensure anonymity and confidentiality: Protect a survivor’s identity and confidentiality throughout the entire interview process – from the moment she is contacted through the time that any information she provided is made public.
  • Get informed consent: Make certain that each respondent clearly understands the content and purpose of the interview, the intended use of the information, her right not to answer questions, her right to terminate the interview at any time, and her right to put restrictions on how the information is used.
  • Listen to and respect each woman’s assessment of her situation and risks to her safety: Recognize that each woman will have different concerns, and that the way she views her concerns may be different from how others, including the interviewer, might assess them. Recognize that victims themselves can often best assess their own risk.
  • Do not re-traumatize a woman or girl: Do not ask questions intended to provoke an emotionally charged response. Be prepared to respond to a woman's distress and highlight her strengths.
  • Be prepared for emergency intervention: Be prepared to respond if a woman or girl says she is in imminent danger.
  • Put information collected to good use: Use information in a way that benefits an individual woman or that advances the development of good policies and interventions for women and girls generally.

More resources related to the ethics of interviewing about human rights violations against women and girls are available in the Programming Essentials section of this website.

Iran – Methodology for Gathering Information on Access to Justice

A UNDP appraisal of access to justice for women in Iran used multiple methods including review of existing literature, key informant interviews, questionnaires and focus groups. A total of 204 people were interviewed for the study, of which 47 were female judges, 45 were female attorneys, 54 were female offenders and 56 were female claimants. Two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on women’s legal issues also were interviewed. According to the research report, “interviewees selected for the study were identified within institutions. Letters were written to a focal point within the courts, which were then distributed to judges and attorneys to encourage their participation in the study. The attorneys willing to participate in the study were met in their own offices and the judges were visited in the courts. The research team approached female claimants in the courts and the Legal Medical Clinic where claimants seek physicians to assess their physical condition. Female offenders were solicited in the Women’s Prison through the authorities. Female offenders who had recently been released were approached in shelters developed for newly released prisoners who lacked housing. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on women’s legal issues also participated and provided information on their activities.”

Because the study was interviewing both women claimants and female offenders in or recently released from prison, ethical and safety concerns were a central issue in the research. The researchers took account of the fact that because of the sensitive nature of the topic, anyone who chose to participate in the research was in fact engaging in a “political act.” Strict confidentiality and anonymity provisions were put in place to protect participants. Moreover, the research was made possible because the research team had previously conducted work in the Iranian court system and was trusted by key staff from the courts. The researchers provided honorariums to participants and also provided referrals to resources when necessary. The study resulted in multiple recommendations to the Iranian government, including changes to the penal code and increased support for non-governmental organizations.

Survey instruments including both qualitative and quantitative questions are available in the appendices of the report.

Source: U.N. Development Programme. 2007. Access to Justice for Disadvantaged Groups: The Case of Women in Iran.

Good interviewing requires the interviewer to be non-judgmental, connect with the interviewee, communicate complicated issues clearly, be professional, be polite, be knowledgeable and sensitive to the issues, be well-prepared, and make inquiries in a non-confrontational or non-challenging manner. In general, interviewers should be prepared to carry out the interview, be knowledgeable about the issues and context, and be respectful to the interviewee. Steps in conducting useful interviews include:

  • Determining the purpose of the interviewing;
  • Identifying specific interviewees, or criteria for interviewee selection;
  • Developing a set of questions or themes to address during interviews;
  • Writing an interview protocol to ensure consistency throughout the process, especially if multiple people are conducting interviews;
  • Pilot testing interview protocol and questions;
  • Finalizing informed consent language and forms; and
  • Creating the final protocol, including methods for recording the interview information either through notes, audio, or video recording.

Sample Informed Consent Language for Interviews with Survivors 

We are conducting research on the experiences of women who have been trafficked for [name of organization] in order to identify better ways to ensure their access to the courts. We would like to talk to you about [state general topic to be discussed] and to ask you questions about [list key subjects that will be covered, including sensitive information that will be requested].

I won't ask your name. Everything you tell me will be kept strictly secret. No identifying personal details will be revealed. I will not use your name, the name of your hometown, your trafficker's name, or specific details about your family. There are no wrong or right answers. You may find some of the questions bring up difficult memories and you should feel free to take your time answering or to decline to answer, if you wish. Your responses about your experiences will be used to help other women who have had similar experiences and health needs.

We have discussed the potential risks and benefits, such as [review risks and benefits mentioned during prior discussion of risks and benefits] and ways we can limit these risks, such as [review ideas for limiting risks mentioned during prior discussion of risks].

You don't have to participate if you don't wish to. If you agree to proceed, you may choose to stop the interview at anytime, or if you don't wish to answer a question or would like to ask me a question, please feel free to stop me. This interview will take approximately 30 minutes.

Do you agree to be interviewed? 

Is this a good time and place to talk?

Source: World Health Organization. 2003. Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women.

Developing interview questions 

Practitioners can construct different kinds of questions as needed to gather information. For example, interview questions can:

  • find out about the nature and extent of violations of women’s and girls’ human rights;
  • learn what and how causes and risk factors contribute to or exacerbate the human rights violations;
  • learn what consequences stem from human rights violations;
  • target structural issues, such as laws or systems;
  • elicit information on how pre-identified flaws in the law or policy play out in practice;
  • seek clarification about procedures, guidelines, protocols and trainings and remind interviewers to obtain copies of any official documents or template forms during the interview;
  • seek quantitative information to obtain estimates, such as asking police or judges about the number of cases of violence against women in a given period;
  • learn what efforts non-governmental organizations and others are making to respond to the human rights violation; and
  • ask about public perceptions, victim needs, and recommendations for change.

In general, the following guidelines may be helpful for practitioners as they develop their interview questions:

  • Questions should be open-ended, non-leading and non-inflammatory. Use as few yes/no questions as possible.
  • Avoid framing questions in a judgmental or aggressive tone. Practitioners should anticipate that interview questions about violence against women may generate strong emotions, or may elicit stories of abuse and violence from the interviewee in some cases.
  • Craft interview questions to be concise, easy-to-understand, and as clear as possible. Avoid lingo, slang, and emotionally-loaded words. Use ordinary language and terms familiar to the respondent.
  • If applicable, include a map or diagram to facilitate questioning and responses about events.
  • Consider asking an expert or other appropriate person to review and critique questions beforehand to ensure that they are relevant and comprehensive.
  • Lead off with more non-controversial and less sensitive questions. For example, asking the interviewee to describe their work and duties is an initial question that helps set a comfortable tone.
  • Prioritize the most pressing questions in terms of question order.
  • Ask for anecdotes without compromising confidentiality. The use of experiences and stories can help illustrate and lend credence to conclusions.
  • Be prepared to deviate from the question set if needed during the interview to obtain clarification or more details.

Depending on the goal, practitioners may need to develop different question sets for different categories of interviewee. For example, separate question sets may be needed for judges, prosecutors, police, lawyers, community activists, survivors, perpetrators, advocates, and religious or other community leaders. If so, practitioners should assess what information is needed, what each group can provide, and develop tailored questions.

Sample Key Informant Interview Questions (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2011)

Sample Questions for Prosecutors Related to Domestic Violence

General

  1. Can you describe your work and area of responsibility?  What size population does your district serve? How many prosecutors serve this district? 
  2. How long have you been a prosecutor?  How many cases do you prosecute a year?  Can you describe what kinds of cases?
  3. Does your office handle cases involving violent assaults between husband/wife or intimate partners? 
  4. (If there is a new law on domestic violence) Are you familiar with the new law on domestic violence?  What are prosecutors’ responsibilities under the new law? 
  5. Can you estimate how many cases of domestic violence are reported in your district each year?  How many cases of domestic violence are charged in your district each year? Do you have staff members who specialize in prosecuting domestic violence cases?
  6. Does your office keep statistics on domestic violence cases?  Do these statistics show the gender of the perpetrator and victim, their relationship, and the severity of the injury?

Prosecutor Procedures in Domestic Violence Cases

  1. What laws relate to the criminal prosecution of domestic violence?
  2. What policies or protocols does your office have regarding prosecution of domestic violence cases?  May we have a copy of the policy?
  3. What factors are considered in determining whether to prosecute domestic violence crimes? 
  4. Please describe the procedure involved in the complete prosecution of a domestic violence case.
  5. How many cases of domestic violence are declined in your district each year? What are some of the reasons that you decline to prosecute domestic violence cases?  What is the most common reason that you decline to prosecute domestic violence cases?
  6. How many cases of domestic violence do you dismiss each year?  What are some of the reasons that you dismiss cases of domestic violence?  What is the most common reason that you dismiss cases of domestic violence?
  7. If the case is prosecuted, what role does the victim play in the prosecution? What do you do if the victim does not want to proceed with or participate in a prosecution?  Do you need the victim to testify to go forward with prosecutions? 
  8. If the case is not prosecuted by the state, do women ever initiate private prosecution of a domestic violence case?
  9. What type of evidence do you need to prove injuries in court?
  10. Is lack of documentation of the abuse in a police report ever a problem in prosecuting domestic violence crimes? 
  11. Is lack of documentation of the abuse in a medical report ever a problem in prosecuting domestic violence crimes?
  12. Is there a way that you find out about previous acts of violence in a domestic violence case?  Do previous acts of domestic violence affect your actions in a case?

Sample Questions for Judges Related to Domestic Violence

General
  1. Can you briefly describe your work and area of responsibility?
  2. How long have you been a judge?
  3. What is the process for becoming a judge?  What are the educational requirements?  Is there any requirement of continuing education?  Have you had trainings on domestic violence? If so, who organized them?
  4. [If there is a new law on domestic violence]  Have you had specific training on the new law on domestic violence?  Do you know if all judges have had this training? 

Judicial Procedures in Domestic Violence Cases:

  1. Are domestic violence cases brought before your court?
  2. Can you estimate what percentage of your cases are domestic violence cases?  Does your office keep statistics on domestic violence cases?
  3. Are there specialized courts for the handling of civil domestic violence cases in which orders for protection are sought?  If so, do the judges who handle these cases receive specialized training at the beginning of their service or at regular intervals during their service?  How many judges handle these cases?  What is their approximate caseload?
  4. Are there specialized courts for the handling of criminal cases of domestic violence, either assault cases, violations of orders for protection, or other matters such as harassment or stalking?  If so, do the judges who handle these cases receive specialized training at the beginning of their service or at regular intervals during their service?  How many judges handle these cases?  What is their approximate caseload?

Criminal Proceedings

1. Do you hear criminal assault cases involving domestic violence?

2. What factors are considered in determining whether or not to convict on domestic violence crimes?

3. What punishments are available for perpetrators of domestic violence? What factors are considered in sentencing after a conviction for domestic violence?  What is the most common sentence?  Do you ever suspend sentences in cases of domestic violence?

4. What factors are considered in setting bail for a perpetrator accused of a domestic violence crime? 

5. Have you ever encountered a situation in which the perpetrator seemed extremely dangerous?  What criteria do you use to assess for direct and immediate threat to the victim’s life?  What action do you take in this situation?

6. Do you utilize risk assessments in determining bail, release, or sentencing of domestic violence perpetrators?

7. Have you ever seen a situation in which a victim of domestic abuse was also arrested, charged, or convicted of domestic abuse?  Can you describe that situation and what happened?

8. If the case goes to court, what role does the victim play in the prosecution?

9. How long does it generally take to for a criminal domestic violence case to be resolved?

10. Is lack of documentation of the abuse a problem in cases of domestic violence crimes?  If so, how and why?

11. Are forensic doctors used in cases of domestic violence?  If so, what weight do you give to having a certificate?  Can a case be prosecuted without one?  Are the conclusions on forensic certificates ever questioned?  If so, what happens?

12. Do women prosecute cases of domestic violence unassisted by the state? Are they successful at prosecuting their cases?

For information on how to assess court facilities specifically, see the sections below on specialized courts and court safety.

Developing an interview protocol

A protocol provides an overall description of the interview process to guide the interviewer, along with specific instructions about how to conduct themselves during the interview. The protocol should include an introductory script that introduces the interviewers and the organization, describes the project mandate, explains how the information will be used, explains what the interviewer can and cannot do with the information, and explains issues of confidentiality. All interview protocols should allow for time at the conclusion of the interview to:

  • Ask if the interviewee has other additional names to recommend for an interview or other sources.
  • Ask if the interviewee has anything else to add.
  • Allow the interviewee time to ask questions of the interviewer.

Other tips for conducting Interviews (Amnesty International and CODESRIA 2000)

  • If using mixed-gender interviewing teams, always provide an opportunity for women interviewees to speak with women interviewers alone.
  • Be prepared to hear about personal experiences of violence from women who are your key informants, even if they have not been initially identified as survivors. With one in four women experiencing violence in their lifetime, it is very common to hear from women judges, advocates, activists, legislators, police officers, and other about the violence they have experienced.
  • Remember that sexual violence is one of the most difficult allegations to discuss because of the social, cultural, moral, and political environment. In almost all societies, a woman or girl coming forward with allegations of rape, sexual violence, or sexual humiliation, has a great deal to “lose” and is likely to face extraordinary pressures and ostracism from the closest members of her family to the society at large.
  • Adopt a policy for interviewers on a gender-sensitive language, including using words and expressions that do not obscure women’s and girls’ experiences. For instance, you could use generic terms and titles, such as: people, human beings, society, individual, men and women, and chairperson rather than such terms as: man, men, mankind, or chairman.
  • Build trust with the women you are interviewing, understand the cycles of violence, and at which stage the women are, before bringing up sensitive issues.

Palestine – Gathering Data on “Honor” Killings

At the intersection of formal and informal justice systems is the problem of “honor” killings, a type of femicide. A Palestinian women’s advocacy organization, Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling, wanted to conduct advocacy related to “honor” killings, but found that virtually no data on the problem was available. Because the impetus behind “honor” killings is to restore a family’s “honor” cases were not brought to court, police records often were misleading, traditional leaders didn’t want to discuss the problem, offenders remained unpunished, and women and girls suffered in silence. The Women’s Centre received a grant from the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women to conduct research on the problem. The Women’s Centre used multiple methods to gather data, not only on the event of an “honor” killing, but also on the process that ultimately leads to a death. The research team:

  • interviewed women seeking services, families of survivors, health officials, religious leaders, police, judges, and government officials,
  • reviewed records from police and courts,
  • administered questionnaires, and
  • documented their own experiences as service providers.

The final report included information on number of cases, types of cases, analysis of causes, and individual stories. The research documented the fact that “honor” killings appeared to be increasing and that women believed their situation to be increasingly oppressive. The appraisal research enabled the organization to develop trusting relationships with many stakeholders, such as police and religious leaders, and directly informed the organization’s proposals for action steps, including development of a databank on “honor” killing, and extensive training for decision-makers in the formal and informal sectors such as judges and faith leaders. Gathering data also helped the organization identify key steps during the process leading up to an “honor” killing at which intervention is most helpful. For example, working with police (who often hear about a rape or other incident that could ultimately lead to a killing) to encourage them to refer young women to the Women’s Centre before the family is notified emerged as an important strategy.

Source: Spindel, et al. 2000. With an End in Sight.

Pakistan – Examining the Link Between Jirgas and Violence Against Women

A study on the Role of Tribal Jirga in Violence Against Women was conducted in the Sindh province of Pakistan in 2005. The study used a literature review, key informant interviews, focus groups, and documentation of case studies to examine the link between jirgas and “honor” killings. The questions asked of interviewees about the practices of this informal justice mechanism are reproduced below.  The study resulted in recommendations to the government for changes in the law, police training, and legal literacy education for men and women.

Questionnaire

1. What is the historical background of tribal system in Sindh?

2. What is the historical background of jirga system in Sindh?

3. What are the present day mechanisms / processes of jirga system i.e., how it is being run?

4. What is the tribal code of “honour” and what is its place in the jirga system?

5. What is the tradition of “honour” killing (Karo Kari)?

6. What is the historical background of this tradition?

7. What, according to your opinion, are the basic causes behind karo kari killings?

8. What are the codes, rules and regulations of tribal jirga to deal with the cases of karo kari?

9. What is the role of government in the tribal jirgas and their verdicts with regard to women especially in the cases of karo kari?

10. What are the negative impacts (if any) of tribal jirgas on the cases of karo kari in Sindh?

11. What are the positive impacts (if any) of the tribal jirgas on the karo kari cases in Sindh?

12. Are rules, codes and decisions of tribal jirga with regard to violence against women in accordance to the formal legal provisions of Pakistan?

13. If not, how they violate the laws and the constitution of Pakistan?

14. Are the tribal jirga in accordance to the international conventions of human rights / women rights?

15. If no, what are the main points/ areas, where jirga codes, rules and verdicts violate the international human rights conventions?

16. If the verdicts of tribal jirgas violate the law of the land as well as international human rights standards and conventions what are your suggestions for preventing such violations by the tribal jirgas?

17. What are your suggestions for the prevention of the growing cases of violence against women especially the cases of karo kari in Sindh?

Source: Participatory Development Initiatives. 2005. Role of Tribal Jirga in Violence Against Women.

Additional Resources for Researching Violence Against Women and Girls:

Researching Violence Against Women: A Practical Guide for Researchers and Activists (PATH/WHO, 2005). Available in English.

Monitoring the Implementation of Domestic Violence Laws: A Human Rights Methodology (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2011). Available in English and Russian.

International Violence Against Women Survey (Springer, 2008). Available in English. Survey questions available in the back matter.

Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women (World Health Organization, 2003). Available in English.

Putting Women First: Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence against Women (WHO, 2001).  Available in EnglishFrench and Spanish. 

WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Researching, Documenting and Monitoring Sexual Violence in Emergencies (WHO, 2007). Available in English and French. 

A Methodology for Gender-Sensitive Research (Rights and Democracy, 1999). Available in English.

Ukweli: Monitoring and Documenting Human Rights Violations in Africa (Amnesty International and CODESRIA, 2000). Available in English.

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