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Protecting Survivors in Iraq’s Conflict-Affected Communities

Today in Iraq people are struggling to recover from atrocities committed by ISIS militants. Such atrocities include killings, sexual violence, forced religious conversions, use of child soldiers, massive displacement, and widespread destruction of homes and historic and religious sites. Ethnic and religious minority groups suffered uniquely not only as part of the ISIS strategy, but due to their fragile status politically and legally as minorities in Iraq.

A significant number of survivors now live with substantial psychological trauma. It is important that the media covers ISIS brutality, and that international development agencies and their implementing partners—those on the front lines, helping communities recover—inform the public about what these humanitarian programs are accomplishing. 

Yet far too often, in the capturing of survivors’ experiences, reporters and storytellers unwittingly re-traumatize individuals and compromise their safety and dignity. Each time a person recounts trauma they relive those events; therefore, storytellers must take precautionary steps when asking people to repeat their stories. Further, exposing details about individuals’ experiences, especially linked to sexual violence, human trafficking, and other violations, to their families and communities can lead to greater stigmatization and worse. Awareness is a first step; applying existing protocols is necessary to ensure that individuals are protected and empowered throughout the storytelling process, and that stories are told in ways that respect the individual’s dignity and avoid sensationalism.  

In our work in northern Iraq, we are developing a set of protocols that will be tailored to the specific concerns and needs of diverse communities including survivors of ISIS captivity. These protocols will guide our research, monitoring, and communications work to prioritize the safety and dignity of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors while also conveying how our programs contribute to survivors’ transformation and success.

We will adopt these protocols to safeguard beneficiaries of the Governance Integration for Stabilization and Resilience project in Iraq. Before joining the project, I had worked in Iraq for more than a decade, and during recent years I had observed an alarming trend among journalists and organizations working among the Yazidi religious minority group. Although ISIS militants raped and trafficked women from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, they specifically targeted the Yazidi people as part of a strategic genocidal campaign. When those women escaped from captivity, they faced an onslaught of journalists, activists and organizations requesting interviews. Many survivors were asked to tell their traumatic stories repeatedly, and to provide gratuitous details of rape and trafficking. This led me to conduct research with Dr. Johanna Foster about how Yazidi women perceived their interactions with journalists.

Our research was based on interviews with 26 women, 13 of whom were survivors. Several women reported being pressured by journalists and their community to recount the horrors of rape and enslavement they suffered, or were promised benefits in exchange for their stories. The women’s responses suggested that they often did not know the difference between a service provider and a journalist, which also indicates that a widespread lack of informed consent. In Voices of Yazidi Women, our findings showed that 70% of survivors who were interviewed by journalists reported suffering intense emotional pain that contributed to “flashbacks, as well as feelings of sadness, fatigue, crying, self-flagellation and fainting during or after interviews” (Foster and Minwalla 2018, 57). 

Interviewers must understand that interviewing a survivor of a severely traumatic incident risks causing additional psychological harm, triggering symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Our research also found that 90% of Yazidi survivors and 80% of all participants did not believe that revealing identifying information (including names, faces and tattoos) was a good idea. Yazidi women flagged concerns that their relatives still in captivity would be harmed. Survivors with PTSD also feared recapture by ISIS, and that exposing their whereabouts would alert the militants. Interviewers should contemplate the effects of using photos and/or names of survivors of human rights violations. Disclosing survivors’ identities can expose them to retaliation from relatives or their community (SGBV survivors are often seen as having lost their honor) and further stigma. 

These useful guidelines and recommendations provide a good starting point to develop organizational protocols. In addition to presenting best practices for conducting ethical interviews, these guidelines emphasize the value of using accurate terminology, balancing out the story with facts beyond the details of trauma, and portraying the survivors’ courage and strength as opposed to depicting them as passive victims. 

At a more meta level, development and humanitarian actors must acknowledge their position of power and influence relative to program participants and beneficiaries, and how that might influence a person’s decision to consent to tell his or her story. Beneficiaries are often thankful for the services and benefits they have received. They might agree to make an organization happy or feel they are giving something back in return. One way to ensure this unwitting pressure is explicitly addressed is to inform individuals that their refusal to participate will not in any way affect their ability to receive services or other benefits, and that they can revoke their participation at any time. 

By allowing people to read and view their stories before publication, organizations can empower beneficiaries, who are free to change their minds about telling the story or suggest edits about how they are portrayed. Obtaining informed consent is critical. This includes reviewing details about where the story will be posted, who generally has access to that outlet, and driving home the point that the person’s community might access the story on the internet, where it will always remain public.

Being transparent and providing as much information as possible throughout the interview/storytelling process can help to alleviate future anxiety for people who continue to live in an unstable and unpredictable situation. 

With photographs it is important to not only gain permission but also to think about whether that person might feel uncomfortable saying “no” due to the power dynamic, and if the permission was thus essentially coerced. Even if someone is eager to tell her story and willing to include identifying information, it is incumbent upon development and humanitarian organizations—who owe a duty of care to that person—to ensure that storytelling does not endanger anyone. 

I believe this problem mostly stems from lack of awareness and tools on the part of journalists and storytellers. But, sometimes the damage inflicted is not accidental. Women in our research shared an example of a journalist who promised not to publish photos only to later renege. This is sadly but probably true in similar situations beyond the camps in Iraq where our research took place. When a violation like this occurs, in a publication, on social media, or between colleagues, those betrayed should have a mechanism to report what happened and seek redress. News organizations and implementing partners should own this responsibility; they need to inform interviewees and communities of the mechanism and how to use it. Exactly how such a tool would roll out and achieve success at scale must be explored, but the goal should be to find a viable approach.

Because a success story often aims to show positive impacts, unlike media reports which predominantly focus on negative facts, the framing of these stories often balances out the difficulties people experienced with examples of positive impacts from the programs and services that aid people and communities in recovery. Highlighting not only how an implementing partner helped bring about a change, but also the strength and courage of the beneficiaries can bring to light positive characteristics of these individuals and portray a more holistic picture of their humanity.

Going the extra mile to protect the people we are helping will deepen trust within conflict-affected communities while simultaneously empowering beneficiaries to become active agents in their communities’ development and their own success.