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General considerations

Last edited: December 30, 2011

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  • The experience of survivors during the interview process can determine whether she will pursue a case through the criminal justice system and has the risk of re-traumatizing women and girls if police or other uniformed personnel do not demonstrate respect for their rights and maintain ethical interviewing practices when taking statements from survivors.  

  • Police (and where relevant, military personnel) should consider the potential risks and consequences a woman survivor or witness may face when being interviewed. These may include renewed trauma through the interview process; stigmatization by family and community members for disclosing her experience; losing her home, employment, or custody of her children, as well as continued or increased future abuse (by partners in domestic violence cases; by traffickers or other perpetrators where the survivor’s identity is not protected).

  • Critical ethical issues to consider before, during and after an interview include:

  • Prioritize safety: 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- or longer-term.

  • Maintain confidentiality: Interviews must be conducted in a safe, confidential and completely private setting, where possible (such as a separate room for taking statements or at the office of a survivor support group). Anonymity should be assured. If translation is needed, ensure the woman and girl is comfortable with the translator before proceeding with the interview (ideally working with women’s groups and other service providers to identify an appropriate translator).

  • Get informed consent: Make certain that the woman or girl 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. See specific guidance on working with girl survivors and women and girls with disabilities.

  • Word questions carefully: Questions should be constructed to consider survivor emotions about incidents of violence and should not aim to provoke strong emotional responses. Be prepared to respond to a woman's distress and rebuild her feelings of confidence and safety.

  • Ensure participation is voluntary: Individuals should be given the opportunity to skip questions or to end the interview at any time. They should also be given time to read or listen to the statement documented to ensure it accurately reflects her case and make any adjustments before the statement is submitted.

  • Prepare referral information: security personnel should not offer advice or make promises that they cannot fulfill.

  • Listen sensitively: Respect each woman’s assessment of her situation and safety risks– each individual may have a different perspective on her situation.

  • Avoid re-traumatizing the woman or girl, for example by pushing for more explicit details of the act of violence when she is clearly deeply upset by remembering what happened.

  • Be prepared for emergency intervention (i.e. have a contact list of health, psycho-social and other survivor support organizations if the survivor asks for immediate assistance, becomes traumatized or shows signs of ill health).

  • Keep data confidential: Strict protocols must be followed in removing identifying markers from data before storage and publication (e.g. the victim’s name, address, location and date of the incident)

  • Use information ethically (i.e. to support or benefit the survivor and her children, to help other survivors, to locate and bring a perpetrator to justice)

(WHO, 2007; WHO, 2003; see also Ethical Guidelines section).     

Principles for interviewing survivors of sexual assault (International Association of Chiefs of Police)

Respect the survivor’s immediate priorities.

  • Attend to the immediate health and safety concerns and questions about reporting and the criminal justice process before beginning the interview.

  • Survivors have a right to accept or decline all services. This does not mean that a thorough investigation should not be conducted.

Build a rapport with the victim.

  • Victims may know little about the investigative process and may find the criminal justice system confusing, intimidating, or even frightening. Explain all processes during each step of the interview and investigation. This creates transparency and trust, while helping to restore the survivor’s sense of control.

  • Assure the survivor that they will not be judged and that the information reported is being taken seriously.

  • Survivors of sexual assault may blame themselves. Reassure them that, regardless of their behaviour, no one has the right to assault them.

Ask the survivor if they would like to have a support person present for the interview.

  • It is best practice to allow victims to have an advocate or a support person of their choosing present during the medical exam and/or law enforcement interview.

  • Provide victims with written contact information for community referrals.

Recognize the impact of trauma and how this affects an individual’s behaviour.

  • Survivors of sexual assault may not report to law enforcement. Of the survivors who report, the majority do so after some delay. A delay in reporting should never deter a thorough investigation.

  • Survivors may experience difficulty remembering all the details of the assault due to traumatic response. This does not mean they are lying or leaving out details intentionally. Often with time and as trauma recedes, details emerge.

  • After sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation, schedule a follow-up interview to gather any information that may have missed or not recalled earlier. Caution should be taken as this might re-traumatize the survivor and may not always be possible.

Provide victims with information on how to obtain medical treatment and undergo a forensic exam.

  • Explain the medical significance of a sexual assault forensic examination, including testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

  • Notify the survivor of nearby locations where a sexual assault forensic examination is available. If possible, provide transportation to a local rape crisis centre or hospital.

  • Should a survivor initially decline a forensic medical examination, provide information as to where they may obtain an exam at a later time.

  • Physical evidence can be collected up to 120 hours (in some contexts) following a sexual assault. The survivor should be advised, however, that critical physical evidence and documentation of injuries may be lost with a delayed exam.

Do not pressure the survivor to make any decisions regarding participation in the investigation or prosecution during the initial interview or start of the investigation.

  • Sexual assault survivors are often reluctant to actively participate with case proceedings. Document any information shared, as this may aid in the identification and apprehension of a serial offender.

  • Pressuring a reluctant survivor to sign a form stating that they are not interested in prosecution and will not hold the agency accountable for stopping the investigation is poor practice and is potentially damaging to an agency.

  • Survivor follow-up builds trust with victims and sends a message to the community about the seriousness with which an agency handles sexual assault crimes.

Excerpt adapted from: IACP. 2005. “Sexual Assault Incident Reports: Investigative Strategies”.