Documenting Rape in War

It takes a delicate awareness of cultural sensitivities and ethics to report on sexual violence without causing victims further distress or danger.

This is one of the most challenging areas of war coverage for even seasoned journalists. Reporting on sexual violence necessitates a delicate awareness of cultural sensitivities and ethics. Reporters must be aware of how to probe without causing further distress or danger.

At the same time, it is difficult to verify. Rape is often underreported for propaganda purposes or due to shame. Often it occurs in remote areas where victims fear reprisals from perpetrators or even family if they are interviewed.
However, it is important to tell these stories, to effect change on both the societal and individual level. Publicizing the horror of systematic rape might lead to policy changes. And talking — in a properly conducted interview — can often bring emotional relief to survivors. Some survivors find the process of telling their story a source of validation, especially if their attackers are not tried in a court of justice.

The impetus to properly report on rape and sexual violence is greater now that such assaults are being tried as war crimes in international courts. The International Criminal Court, whose creation was approved by the United Nations in Rome in 1998, made any form of widespread serious sexual violence a crime against humanity, whether during war or peace. The crimes include rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution and forced pregnancy.

The following are some of the chief challenges, and some possible solutions.



Due to the geographic remoteness of conflict areas and refugee settlements, your transport is often dependent on others such as NGOs, the U.N. or local officials. This can mean that you only have a short period of time on the ground, which limits attempts to establish a rapport and corroboration. 


Do prior research such as reading beforehand to get context and background. Try to get information in advance about the interviewee. Use your time on the ground to speak to subject, not to obtain basic information.

Establish a way to follow up with questions. (Get the sat phone number, for instance, of an NGO representative who has a personal rapport with the subject.)

Can you fill in details of the subject’s tale by relying on secondary sources who know the background? These might include medical staff, social workers and aid organizations.

If you only have time for a brief interview, ask workers whether they can suggest someone who may have already told his or her story to others and who is relatively at ease doing so. A short interview with someone talking for the first time can risk causing avoidable distress.



Journalists often have to rely on local fixers or translators. They are generally unaware of sensitive interviewing techniques.


Whenever possible, use another reporter who speaks the local language and understands how to conduct a delicate interview. Some news organizations do not object if a representative of an NGO who knows the individual involved does the interview on your behalf. (But ensure that the person is politically neutral and does not have an agenda. Also tape the interview and go over it afterwards with a translator.)

Before interviewing, brief the translator on sensitive techniques.

Be sensitive to euphemisms. Some cultures find it offensive to use the word for rape.

Where you sit with your interpreter can matter in some cultures. In some situations it may be preferable for the translator to sit on your side so that the interviewee is also looking at you. That will enhance your rapport. In other cases, you may prefer to sit in a in a triangle to suggest an equal balance of power. You may also find it easier to sit side-by-side with the person you are interviewing.

Be conscious of how to use eye contact. In some cultures it is preferable, in others offensive, particularly between genders. Do your homework on body language. Find out what is culturally appropriate for the country that you are visiting.

Is it appropriate to offer "cultural comforters" like sweets or tissues? It may help to break the proverbial ice in some cultures, or cause offense in others.



One interviewer can be intimidating enough. Often you are accompanied by support staff or colleagues: fixers, translators, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons, producers. The NGO that organized the interview may want a representative to sit in. Elders, relatives, community leaders or soldiers may insist on being present.


Use as small a crew as possible. Where possible use a local crew or photographer who can double as translator. 

Try to avoid other people sitting in on the interview. Warn local organizations, guides or transport staff in advance that you need time alone with the interviewee. Politely insist that officials not accompany you.

The photographer can shoot pictures separately from the journalist, so that the interviewee does not feel overwhelmed by both at the same time.

Note: The general rule in Western societies is to avoid having family members present during the interview. However, many victims from other cultures, especially children, often find it helpful to be accompanied by a relative with whom they feel safe. This is particularly true if the journalist is a man.



No matter how sensitive you are, a raped woman will probably feel more comfortable telling her story to another female. In the eyes of many women around the world, the maxim holds that any man is a potential rapist, simply by virtue of his gender.

Conversely, in some places such as Chechnya, raped men may also prefer to confide in a woman rather than a man.


Consider deploying a woman to do the interview on your behalf. She could be your producer, a translator or a colleague. As a last resort, you might consider a representative of an NGO who already knows the subject.

Be alert to local norms. In many cultures touching between genders is not advisable.

Be respectful with your body language; resist the temptation to reach out with what you feel is a comforting hand. Being alone with a woman in a room may cause her further discomfort and create social stigma. Try to find a venue where you can talk privately without being behind a closed door



Some people find technology intimidating, particularly if they have never seen such equipment before.


A tape recorder, however, allows you maintain steady eye contact (where appropriate, see above) and thus can help establish trust.

Once people have agreed to be interviewed show how them your equipment works. You may want to show or play them previous work so they can see how the final product looks or sounds.

Respect any request to stop filming or taping.

Use smaller cameras and recorders that are less intimidating.

Whenever possible, show interviewees the final result.

6.    SAFETY

It is the duty and obligation of the interviewer not to place in jeopardy lives or safety of interviewees, their relatives and intermediaries such as NGO sources.


Officials insist on being present, or are in nearby where the interview will take place.


Never interview subjects in front of armed authority or possible collaborators of attackers. Be polite and avoid verbal confrontation with said authority, as that can further endanger the interviewees’ safety.

Be honest about your identity to your source, but do not reveal to others that you are a journalist.

Use smaller cameras that can be carried discreetly in a bag.

Explain in detail the purpose of the interview, publication and possible implications. Seek permission of the victim and/or relatives before conducting any interview. They have the right to refuse any interview and you must respect this decision.



Your article may lead to repercussions against the interviewee. Public disclosure of the identities of interviewees in conflict situations, such as Darfur, has resulted in severe, adverse consequences for interviewees, including imprisonment, punishment or even death. Universal access to information, often quite personal, on the Internet can present dangers to people you are talking to. Officialdom even in remote areas can track down people in refugee camps for reprisals or intimidation.


Anonymity may be useful, but your subject may not request it because he or she does not understand how media organizations work. Using a first name or pseudonym may not be enough. Consider obscuring identifying features such as job, age and village.

Use good judgment. Ask a local NGO, women’s group or doctors about possible reprisals.

Film or show footage in a way that does not reveal the face. Film victims veiled, from the back or in shadows. Pixelate images, for example, or just show details of hands.

Silhouettes are not advisable to mask identity, as one can sometimes manipulate the image to better see the person filmed.



Minors are often among the victims of sexual violence in conflict.


When interviewing and reporting on children, special attention much be paid to each child’s rights, privacy and dignity, whether they are victims, witnesses or offenders. The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of child rights. Those closest to the child’s situation and best able to assess it should be consulted about the social and individual ramifications of any reporting. Interview only children who volunteer to be interviewed. Where necessary, the child will be accompanied by his or her guardian or social worker.



You can humiliate the subject or alienate readers or viewers. Websites or publications may use your material for salacious or pornographic purposes.


Always ask if these images are really necessary? Especially use restraint when dealing with minors, either as subjects or viewers.

Suggestion can be powerful, such as a shot of hands fiddling as the survivor speaks. Euphemisms and a matter of fact tone sometimes carry more weight than emotive language.

Don’t publish images that could humiliate the victim further

Having said that, horrific details can give a story more credibility and power. If, for instance, women are mutilated by being raped with bayonets, perhaps you need to say so, without describing the attack in too much detail. Sheer mention of the act may galvanize policy makers to act.



Sexual violence in wartime is very hard to prove, especially in countries where reliable statistics and census details are elusive even during peacetime. When it comes to refugees or missing people, it is possible to obtain relatively reliable figures. But that is less true with something as private as rape, which for many reasons including shame, goes underreported. Figures can also be exaggerated or downplayed for propaganda purposes. Sometimes NGOs inflate estimates to encourage fundraising efforts.


Make clear in the story that there is no decisive data, but by all means mention any trend, especially if it is systematic. Cite the sources for all figures, along with the caveat that they are difficult to confirm.

Resist the temptation to use a figure because a respected colleague or organization cites it. Don’t use “historic” figures that are repeated over the years. Sometimes the final death toll, established after inquiries, is far lower than the original estimate. Always go back to primary source, and corroborate with other sources. Try whenever possible to build your own database by combining different sources of information. Ask your sources about their methodology. People sometimes make up figures to invest claims with credibility.

Reliable sources vary from country to country. In some, it may be the police, or tribal leaders. In others, you’re better off asking clinics or women’s advocacy groups.

Try to corroborate an individual’s story with others: witnesses, doctors, elders, religious leaders, relatives, neighbors.



They are often suspicious of journalists. They may seek to harm you.


Be honest about who you are, and state the allegations in a matter-of-fact fashion. Avoid being confrontational, and make clear that this is an opportunity for the person to tell his or her side of the story. Do not reveal names of accusers when you discuss specific cases.

You are more likely to draw the interviewee out if you go alone. However, be aware of any safety issues. If you feel that you may be in danger make sure that someone is waiting for you in a car outside and keep your cell phone switched on to an emergency number. Take security precautions after the interview. (See suggestions from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)



Local journalists often have less access to sources in their own country than foreign correspondents. They can be mistrusted by victims and perpetrators alike. Sometimes international journalists unwittingly make their local colleagues’ work harder, for example, by paying sources or by reporting the story inaccurately or with disregard to important factual detail.


If you are foreign, be aware of the difficulties facing your local colleagues. Coordinate with them, present yourself to them, and whenever possible share information that they might not be able to get themselves. In turn, they may be able to provide useful information, sources and context that would otherwise prove elusive to you.



Editors and readers can suffer from compassion fatigue. They are tired of endless stories of victims. Some male editors dismiss rape as a woman’s story.

Conversely, be wary of publications or web sites that may want the material for salacious or pornographic purposes.


Persevere. Always think about timing and be conscious of other big stories in the news with which you may be competing. Try to pitch the story before the competition runs it.

Presentation is important, too. Offer personal stories and narratives that are compelling. Always include context to widen interest and put the stories in perspective, whether it be a global or societal or political trend.

  • Find a fresh angle. Maybe profile a perpetrator rather than a victim, or examine novel forms of therapy and support.
  • Examine repercussions and throw the story forward: HIV/AIDS, rejected or abandoned children, prostitution, trafficking of women or children. Examine measures being done to address problems, or challenges facing tribunal investigators. Go back and follow up stories months or years later to find out how communities and individuals have or have not recovered.
  • Sometimes a celebrity angle can help sell such gruesome stories. Is someone like Angelina Jolie publicizing the issue? Consider pitching stories to sections other than international: education, sports, health, technology, science, arts.


Just because things you are reporting didn’t happen to you does not mean you are emotionally immune to the narratives you hear, either from individuals or from testimonies in court. Sometimes journalists who cover war crimes tribunals have been traumatized by what they hear or see in the forum. Guilt and other uncomfortable feelings can be especially intense for local reporters who may question their own roles in the conflict. Be aware of self-care. You may want to protect yourself by reading transcripts of testimonies rather than attending sessions where people may be emotionally distraught or where distressing photographic evidence is shown.


Gottschall, Jonathan. “Explaining Wartime Rape,” The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 41, No. 2, Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, May 2004. (PDF)

Dart Centre Europe's tipsheet on Reporting on Sexual Violence

Simpson, Roger. “Covering Violence”

Ward, Jean. “Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams.” United Nations, 2005.

Amnesty International.

Crimes of War

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) website on women, war and peace

International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict

The United Nations home page for the International Criminal Court
The full text of the Rome Statute of the ICC (including the section on sexual crimes)

UNFPA International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond