Interviewing people who have been raped

What is rape?

Rape is sexual assault. It is forced, unwanted sexual intercourse. Rape can happen to both men and women of any age. Elderly women, baby girls, boys, teenagers, and mothers have all been raped. Rape is an issue across the globe and affects all cultures. By far the majority of rapists are men. But men – especially boys – are also raped, and rape is often used as a form or torture in and outside of prison.

Rape is about power, not sex. A rapist uses violence or the threat of violence to take control over another human being. Some rapists use drugs or alcohol to prevent their victim from fighting back.

Rape can be committed by a stranger, a family member, a teacher or headmaster, a doctor or a date. Rape can be committed by anyone.

It happens in the home and outside of the home, at any time. Rape happens in times of peace and in times of war.

Armies have used rape as a way of controlling and terrorizing the communities they conquer for many centuries. Mass rapes took place during the Second World War, during the Bosnian war, in Kuwait, Indonesia, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and many other places. Mass rapes are still being reported from conflict zones, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, parts of Uganda and Somalia.

Rape is always a crime. Rape is always frightening, traumatizing and humiliating.

Society often blames rape survivors (the victims) for the rape, suggesting that the woman “asked for it” by dressing in a certain way or by walking alone at night. However, there is never justification for rape and media must take care not to reinforce such misperceptions.

What are the human rights standards?

Rape is a form of gender-based violence which violates a number of principles enshrined in regional and international human rights instruments.

These include Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court (1998) and the Geneva Conventions. The UN Security Council has also passed several resolutions regarding rape and sexual violence.


Most countries have ratified CEDAW and the CRC. CEDAW states that women’s fundamental rights include the following:

  • the right to life
  • the right not to be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • the right to equal protection according to humanitarian norms in time of international of internal armed conflict;
  • the right to liberty and security of person;
  • the right to equal protection of the law;
  • the right to equality in the family;
  • the right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health;

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

The CRC provides similar protections for children, including against sexual abuse.

The Geneva Conventions

The conventions state that:

  • “Women must be protected against any attack on their honour, including rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault. Women must also not be adversely discriminated against because of their sex.”
  • - Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention; also, Protocol I, Article 76, Section 1)

  • “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault is prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever, whether committed by civilians or military personnel.”
  • - Geneva Convention, Protocol I, Article 75.

  • “Parties to a conflict must respect children, provide them with any care or aid they require, and protect them from any form of indecent assault.”
  • - Geneva Convention, Protocol I, Article 77, Section 1.

Protocol II makes it clear that these protections also apply in cases of internal conflict.

The International Criminal Court

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes rape as a crime against humanity and as a war crime. “Widespread” and “systematic” rape is included as a crime against humanity (Rome Statute, Article 7).

When rape is committed as part of a “plan” or “policy” during conflict, whether the conflict is between two or more States or happens inside a particular State (internal conflict), it is considered a war crime (Article 8).

The Rome Statute defines rape as having two key elements – invasion/penetration of the body of a person, and force or the threat of force.

Rome Statute – International Criminal Court – Elements of crimes

Summary of what the Rome Statute says about six crimes against humanity that involve sex and reproduction.

Crime against humanity of rape [Article 7 (1) (g)-1]
1. The perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.
2. The invasion was committed by force, or by threat of force, including fear of violence, detention and psychological oppression or abuse of power, or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of giving genuine consent (for example, a person who is disabled or too young).

Crime against humanity of sexual slavery [Article 7 (1) (g)-2]

1. The perpetrator demonstrated “ownership,” such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering a person.
2. The perpetrator caused the “owned” person (or people) to engage in acts of a sexual nature.

Crime against humanity of enforced prostitution [Article 7 (1) (g)-3]

1. The perpetrator caused one or more people to engage in acts of a sexual nature by force, or by threat of force, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment or such person’s or persons’ incapacity to give consent.
2. The perpetrator or another person expected to obtain financial or other gain in exchange for the sexual acts.

Crime against humanity of forced pregnancy [Article 7 (1) (g)-4]

1. The perpetrator confined one or more women forcibly made pregnant, with the intent of affecting the ethnic composition of any population or carrying out other grave violations of international law.

Crime against humanity of enforced sterilization [Article 7 (1) (g)-5]

1. The perpetrator deprived one or more persons of biological reproductive capacity.
2. The conduct not justified by medical or hospital treatment carried out with their genuine consent.

Crime against humanity of sexual violence [Article 7 (1) (g)-6]

1. The perpetrator committed an act of a sexual nature against one or more persons or caused such person or persons to engage in an act of a sexual nature by force, or by threat of force.

Note: These are crimes against humanity. In each of the above, the Rome Statue also includes as key elements of the crime:

  • The conduct was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.
  • The perpetrator knew that the conduct was part of or intended the conduct to be part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

Rape in war

“Rape is not an accident of war, or an incidental adjunct to armed conflict. Its widespread use in times of conflict reflects the unique terror it holds for women, the unique power it gives the rapist over his victim, and the unique contempt it displays for its victims. The use of rape in conflict reflects the inequalities women face in their everyday lives in peacetime. Until governments take responsibility for their obligations to ensure equality, and end discrimination against women, rape will continue to be a favored weapon of the aggressor.”
- Amnesty International

Some cases of rape in war

Amnesty International, USA

  • Bosnia: During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Bosniak girls and women were subject to systematic rape. Hundreds were kept in detention centers where they were repeatedly raped by Serbian soldiers and policemen. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) declared "systematic rape" and "sexual enslavement" in time of war was a crime against humanity. Several people were found guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison.
  • Sudan: Since the humanitarian crisis began in 2003, women in the western Sudanese state of Darfur have been subjected to rape and other forms of gender-based violence perpetrated by the government-backed Janjawid militia, as well as other armed troops. In many cases, women have been publicly raped in front of their husbands, relatives or the wider community. Pregnant women have not been spared and those who have resisted rapes were reportedly beaten, stabbed or killed. Women and girls as young as eight years old have been abducted during attacks and forced into sexual slavery in the Janjawid military camps.
  • Uganda: In northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducts children, forcing girls into "marriage" and institutionalized rape. Men are "given" women and girls as rewards for "good behavior," for example, following orders to kill prisoners of war and captured villagers.
  • Sierra Leone: Abduction, rape, and sexual slavery were also systematic and widespread in the conflict in Sierra Leone. Rape victims often suffer extreme brutality. In one case, a 14-year-old girl was stabbed in the vagina with a knife because she refused to have sex with the rebel combatant who abducted her. In another, a 16-year-old girl was so badly injured that after her escape, she required a hysterectomy.

Why interviewing survivors of rape is different

Many societies value virginity and expect women to be “pure.” Studies show that rape survivors suffer from the stigma of being “damaged” by the experience. Women who have been raped face divorce and abandonment. Women who have been raped sometimes commit suicide rather than live with the shame and humiliation.

Men who have been raped also suffer humiliation and stigma. They are considered lesser men.

Children born to mothers who have been raped suffer for the rest of their lives. Their mothers often reject them and they grow up in institutions. They may be stigmatized because of their father’s crime. Many never find out who their fathers are. Children of raped mothers who do find out who their fathers were suffer shame and guilt.

Rape survivors are less likely to report the crime if they know their names will be published or broadcast. Because of stigma and insensitive treatment of people who have been raped, they deserve a level of privacy not afforded other crime victims. In many places, journalists may not disclose the names of rape survivors even when reporting a court case.

Guide for interviewing rape survivors

  • Do not interview anyone who is hysterical or in shock; rather, interview a friend or family member, and go back to the rape survivor later.
  • It may be difficult for female survivors to tell their stories to men; likewise it may be difficult for male survivors to talk to women. If the interviewer cannot be a person of the same sex, make sure that the survivor is comfortable talking with someone of the opposite sex.
  • Be sympathetic, but keep it short. You most likely don’t know how they are feeling. So something simple, like "I'm sorry about what happened to you” is enough. Anything more might be seen as patronizing.
  • Say who you are, which media you work for and who the likely audience will be.
  • Tell the rape survivor why you are there and what it is that you want. Ensure they understand that you plan to publish or broadcast a report based on the information you obtain from them.
  • Explain that you will not use the rape survivor’s name unless they especially want you to. Stress that you will go to great lengths to protect his or her identity.
  • Explain what on the record and off the record mean. Tell the interviewee to use that phrase at any time during the interview so that you will know what information not to publish.
  • Check the interviewee’s comfort with the length of the interview. Also, is the interviewee comfortable with the venue? Is s/he happy for you to use cameras or other recording equipment?
  • If interviewing at a hospital, try to get permission from the hospital authorities before the interview.
  • Start with an open-ended question, such as “Tell me about your experience,” to give the survivor the opportunity to steer the conversation with that with which she or he is comfortable.
  • Look the survivor in the eye. Do not get emotional even if the details are shocking.
  • Take breaks for rest or recomposure if necessary for either party.
  • Interviewing rape victims can be difficult and traumatic. Seek help or counseling if you are feeling emotionally affected by the experience.

When drafting your story, consider these questions carefully:

  • Are graphic details about the nature of the rape and injuries necessary to tell the story?
  • Will graphic details of violence and injury help the community?
  • Will readers or viewers be offended by graphic details of the violence and injury?
  • Will the rape survivors suffer more because of the details?
  • Will this detail help police in solving the crime? Is it your duty to help?


Facts, fairness and balance

  • Be especially careful about fairness and balance when most information comes from the victims or survivors of sex crimes.
  • It usually difficult to find independent confirmation of rape survivors’ stories.
  • Because of the nature of crime, it is difficult to avoid taking sides.
  • Ask the interviewee if there is someone else who would be willing to speak – a neighbor who witnessed the incident; someone who knows the suspect; police who are investigating the crime; or prosecutors.
  • Victim rights advocates may be able to offer thoughts and advice about the story. You may want to discuss the story privately with someone who understands trauma and can help guide you through the survivor’s emotions and help you establish what is more likely to be factual and what information is more influenced by emotion.
  • If your interviewee wants to have a person with them during the interview, try not to allow that person to interfere, to ask questions or to take over the interviews. That person will have his or her own bias and may influence the story.