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Do no harm: protection

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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The lives of all participants in the campaign, including the audience at campaign events, must be protected. People must not be exposed to any unnecessary risks. In some contexts, e.g. where women’s mobility is severely restricted and subject to punitive action by the community, campaigns on women’s rights may face potentially violent opposition. Even in environments considered safe, however, campaigning can cause damage—e.g. VAW survivors may suffer extreme psychological stress when being reminded of their traumatic experience.

Risks linked to the campaign, including “internal” and “external” risks, must be identified and analyzed with campaign participants. Explicit plans to reduce risks, and to competently mitigate and respond to any incidents must be elaborated with and known by all members of the campaign team. Further, as campaigns unfold in complex, often unpredictable environments, the risk management plan needs to be monitored and adjusted if the context changes. Such changes may be sudden and dramatic – e.g., mass displacement caused by a natural or man-made disaster – or more gradual, as in the rise of political movements that oppose gender equality. It is important that all participants in the campaign share responsibility in managing risks. Campaign participants must be empowered to share any concerns about new or deepening risks with the campaign management team. Depending on the gravity of the changed situation, it may be necessary to cancel certain campaign activities, or suspend the campaign altogether. See Risk analysis for tips on identifying and assessing risk in campaigns.

Campaign participants must be empowered to determine if they should take risks on the basis of their own free, informed decisions. They must be free to decide whether they participate in a campaign activity or not, and to cancel or interrupt their activity if they feel unsafe. This is particularly important in campaigns spearheaded by powerful “outsiders”, such as international NGOs or donors, who may not be fully aware of the risks facing local individuals and groups who take a public stand against VAW.

Campaigns that take place in a situation of armed conflict (e.g. campaigns to end sexual abuse in refugee camps) should respect the Do No Harm principles of development and humanitarian assistance in conflict, which can easily be transposed to campaigning activities. Based on an analysis of the different factors likely to deepen or to defuse a crisis, Do No Harm identifies action that limits risks and supports a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

For further information, see the Do No Harm project and the Do No Harm blog which has stories, photos and videos of project lessons and activities.

Campaigns on VAW tend to increase demand for direct support to VAW survivors, as women who have not dared to report their experience of VAW may feel encouraged to seek support. It is critical therefore that  campaigns, particularly those that focus on awareness-raising, not be undertaken unless survivors and other community members have access to minimum services (health, protection and legal) or referrals to get the support they may need. In many instances, outreach or advocacy may result in a woman or girl speaking out about her abuse for the very first time, and prompt counseling and care should be made readily available, in line with ethical standards.

If inadequate or no support services are available, it may be advisable to start with projects or advocacy campaigns for the establishment of organizations supporting VAW survivors. Another option would be to re-frame the campaign to call for justice, and address inequities faced by women and girls in their daily lives, rather than to directly address VAW. Multi-country studies have shown that long-term efforts for greater equality between women and men are critical to reducing women’s risk of experiencing abuse and to ending VAW (WHO, 2009. Promoting Gender Equality to Prevent Violence against Women).

If protection and support services are available to survivors, it is also crucial for campaigners to work to establish links and co-ordinate activities with the organizations which provide such services, e.g. counseling centers, women’s shelters and police and judicial officials trained to deal with VAW-related issues. Keep an up-to-date list of addresses and telephone numbers where survivors can be referred to, and regularly share information with service providers as the campaign progresses.


Practical advice – the triple “A” test:

Check whether the support survivors can obtain from the service providers identified is accessible, affordable and acceptable (3 A’s). Keep lists of appropriate (“3A”) service providers with their contact details, and update and distribute them regularly among campaigners. Care needs to be taken not to divulge addresses of women’s shelters that keep their addresses secret for security reasons; only their public telephone numbers or e-mail addresses should be listed.


Highest standards of safety must be respected when working with girls. The term “girls” designates female children up to the age of 18 years, as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Violence against girls is a severe problem. Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16 (UNFPA, 2003). An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone (WHO, 2004). The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced (WHO, 2005). The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced. Girls are also subjected to dating violence and experience abuse at and on their way to school. Other harmful practices against girls, include 2-3 million a year that are subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and over 50 million that are married as children (UNICEF, 2006).

Although many campaigns to end violence against women and girls (VAW) do not explicitly differentiate between VAW affecting adult women and VAW perpetrated against girls, it is crucial to bear in mind the following issues that are specific to violence against girls. Ignoring these issues may cause harm.

  • Protecting girls may be challenging, if the perpetrator is a family member or within the household.  Extreme caution should be exhibited in engaging girls where consent for participation requires the permission of the parent/legal guardian.
  • Services may not be youth friendly.  If girls are a target of the campaign, advocates should ensure that services tailored or sensitive to this age group are available.
  • Campaign messaging should not place blame or the burden of protection on girls themselves.  For example, sending messages insinuating that girls may be victimized if they wear certain clothing or walk in certain locations. 
  • Campaigns intending to enhance girls “safety” should be designed to empower girls, being mindful that such campaigns can lead to policing girls more closely than boys, thus deepening girls’ sense of powerlessness (Betron and Dogget, 2006. Linking Gender-Based Violence Research to Practice in East, Central and Southern Africa...).


Ethical Approaches to Gathering Information from Children and Adolescents in International Settings (Population Council/Horizons Programme and Family Health International/Impact, 2005).  Available in English

So you want to involve children in research? A toolkit supporting children’s meaningful and ethical participation in research relating to violence against children (Save the Children, 2004). Available in English.