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participation in practice: a case study of a collaborative project on sexual offences in South Africa


In this article we critically reflect on ‘feminist research methods’ and ‘methodology’, from the perspective of a feminist research unit at a South African university, that explicitly aims to improve gender-based violence service provision and policy through evidence-based advocacy. Despite working within a complex and inequitable developing country context, where our feminist praxis is frequently pitted against seemingly intractable structural realities, it is a praxis that remains grounded in documenting the stories of vulnerable individuals and within a broader political project of working towards improving the systems that these individuals must navigate under challenging social and structural conditions. We primarily do this by working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing gender-based violence services in research conceptualisation, design and implementation. This raises unique and complex questions for feminist participatory research, which we illustrate through a case study of collaborative, participatory research with NGOs to improve health and criminal justice outcomes for survivors of sexual violence. Issues include the possibility of good intentions/good research designs failing; the suitability of participatory research in sensitive service provision contexts; the degree(s) of engagement between researchers, service providers (collaborators/participants) and research participants; as well as our ethical duties to do no harm and to promote positive, progressive change through personal narratives and other forms of evidence. Given the demands of our context and these core issues, we not only argue that there are no ‘feminist methods’, but also caution against the notion of a universal ‘feminist methodology’. Whilst we may all be in agreement about the centrality of gender to our research and analysis, the fundamental aims and assumptions of mainstream (Western) feminist approaches do not hold true in all contexts, nor are they without variance in mode, ideal degrees of participation and importance to social context.


Within increasingly reflexive discussions about the aims, scope and nature of feminist research there seems to be some consensus that feminist research methods are difficult to define; instead, there is a well-articulated and common feminist methodology or approach to research. Even when feminist researchers use a multiplicity of research techniques, they share an ideology about undertaking research that is participant-focussed and centres the ethics of care. However, the tension between feminist methodological principles and the structural, institutional and social realities of ‘doing’ feminist research in highly unequal and transitional contexts—such as post-apartheid South Africa—are rarely mentioned within regional or international feminist methodological and epistemological literature.

We will illustrate some of the tensions of feminist praxis in South Africa using a case study of a collaborative project aimed at eliciting the experiences of survivors of sexual offences with the health, social development and criminal justice processes. This study was conducted in partnership with two well-established non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide essential medico-legal, psycho-social and legal support services to these survivors. Our case study exemplifies the contradictions between the ‘good intentions’ of participatory methods and the complexities of participatory community-based research in contexts of pervasive poverty and gender-based violence.

Grounded in our experience as an interdisciplinary, feminist research unit at a South African university, we critically reflect on ‘feminist research methods’ and ‘methodology’, and reflect on how good research designs can fail, the suitability of participatory research in sensitive service provision contexts, the degree(s) of engagement between researchers, service providers (collaborators/participants) and research participants, as well as our ethical duties to do no harm and to promote positive, progressive change through evidence.

gendered experiences, participation and participatory research in South Africa

feminism, freedom and the transitional state

The new constitutional order in South Africa in 1994 brought with it a negotiated political contract to implement a concerted transitional justice project. Akin to the experiences of other transitional and post-conflict societies (Balasco, 2013), this context provided opportunities within the chosen transitional justice model to expose past and persistent human rights violations and to engage with institutional and law/policy reform as well as truth-telling, accountability and reparative measuresFootnote 1 within a bigger project of nation-building and socio-political transformation (Albertyn et al., 2000; Gouws, 2005, 2014). The transformative milieu provided unique opportunities for law and policy change and institutional reforms aimed at enhancing substantive gender equality (Murray and O’Sullivan, 2005; Albertyn, 2011). Efforts towards progressively eradicating historical and persistent gender-based oppression successfully employed ‘evidence’ to both support legal reforms and promote broader national, regional and international advocacy and dialogues on strategies to reduce gender-based violence and improve equity.

However, the lived realities of women and gendered vulnerable groups in South Africa are testament to persisting, and often violent, strong patriarchal societal structures and attitudes (Morrell, 1998). Prevalence studies have consistently demonstrated high levels of violence against women: one in four South African women reported having been abused by a partner (Jewkes, Levin and Penn-Kekana, 2001) and 42 per cent of working men in Cape Town reported the use of physical violence against an intimate partner, with 16 per cent of these men reporting use of sexual violence (Abrahams, 2002). In South Africa, 54 per cent of women live below the poverty line (Statistics South Africa, 2012), and 19 per cent are living with HIV (Statistics South Africa, 2015), interlinking factors that increase vulnerability to violence. The South African healthcare system is highly unequal, and women seeking services for sexual and reproductive health, including sexual violence, encounter numerous barriers to care including a lack of facilities and trained providers and providers’ judgmental attitudes (Wood and Jewkes, 2006). Survivors of sexual violence also encounter numerous challenges in the criminal justice system, including barriers to reporting rape, poorly-conducted investigations and few cases going to trial, with even fewer convictions (Jewkes and Abrahams, 2002). Furthermore, due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and gender minorities are at higher risk of experiencing violence, yet at the same time face greater barriers to accessing health and criminal justice services due to ongoing stigmatisation and discrimination (Nath and Mthathi, 2011).

the role of feminist research in post-apartheid South Africa

Although an emerging feminist scholarship in post-apartheid South Africa exists, very little focusses on the challenges of what may be termed ‘social action’ participatory research. South African feminist work has been part of a larger democracy-building project and has a notably different history from Western feminist projects. For instance, South African feminism has not shared what has been accepted in Western feminist literature as ‘first wave’ and ‘second wave’ feminism, but has instead focussed on social and political liberation, the meaning of feminism in African context(s) and the development of personal freedoms and human rights more broadly (Feminist Alternatives, 2011). Lewis (2001) argues that the mobility of African feminists, the diversity of feminists in the continent, as well as global exchange among feminists, make it impossible to essentialise African feminism. Further, Artz (2008, pp. 71–72) has suggested that ‘African feminisms … are not divided into neat trends, but are instead intricately and unavoidably tied into broader liberation movements, transitional politics, reformation of fractured systems of justice and the development of rights-based and constitutionally informed democracies, climates and theoretical discourses’.

The transitional socio-political context in South Africa has necessitated relevant, transformational and reform-minded research. Artz (2008) argues that within this context, the central task for feminist researchers has been to develop useful theoretical frameworks to 1) acknowledge the analysis of justice as a useful site from which to examine women’s experiences with violence and ‘justice’, as well as the extent to which policy reform is an important (if only symbolic) measure in addressing gender-based violence and equality in transitional contexts; 2) accept that empirical research can be a useful method of bringing together the many strands of the diverse experiences; 3) employ research, legal and legislative analysis to stimulate reform, regardless of how minor; 4) be sensitive to the complex historical and current social realities of a post-conflict, transitional society; 5) ensure that the ‘voices’ of research participants are genuinely ‘heard’ and thoroughly integrated into the analyses; and 6) contribute to new, competing theories on gender-based violence and gender equality within the South African context.

Additionally, South African feminism has focussed on historically unrecognised, intersectional experiences of harm, including sex, gender, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation and/or culture. Such acknowledgement allows for the development of contextually-relevant, holistic, needs-responsive and integrated inter-sectoral policy and service provision (re)formation that seeks to enhance access to justice and services, as well as redress and security for gender-based violence survivors.

Evidence-based advocacy has been an important part of law and social justice reform, including the repealing of discriminatory apartheid laws, policies and institutions. The push for anchoring democracy on effective, equality- and evidence-based law reform has allowed critical feminist contributions towards shaping legal perspectives on termination of pregnancy (Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996, 1996), equality law (Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000, 2000), labour law (Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998, 1998, as well as sections of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997, 2004 [1997] and the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, 1995), domestic violence (Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998, 1999), sexual assault (Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, 2015 [2007]), maintenance (Maintenance Act 99 of 1998, 1998), customary marriages (Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998, 2003 [1998]) and domestic partnerships (Civil Union Act 17 of 2006, 2006). It is also worth mentioning the contributions of feminist research to the development of national policies for the management of sexual offences and HIV within the social development and health care contexts.Footnote 2

South African feminist research has been responsible for identifying and documenting gaps and inconsistencies in knowledge and practice relating to gender oppression and gender equality through the collection of empirical data and rigorous analyses of findings in a rapidly shifting policy environment. This has included legal advocacy work; the drafting of legislation with the Law Commission; monitoring the implementation of the law and its efficacy through empirical studies; technical submissions to parliamentary oversight committees and the courts; public interest litigation; and recommending substantive and pragmatic recommendations for criminal justice, health and social development reforms. Also fundamental to this knowledge-building project has been a demystification of research findings for law and policy makers, civil society organisations, justice practitioners and the media.

It is in this context that our research unit draws together health, legal and social science scholars, professionals, NGOs and practitioners in the promotion of multidisciplinary research, education, law and policy reform and advocacy. Our research is conducted in interdisciplinary teams, and largely focusses on developing and implementing problem-based empirical research and social interventions to address gender-based violence and its consequences in a variety of social, political and institutional settings, and to develop evidence for informed advocacy in law and policy reform in South Africa and similarly situated countries on the continent.

While feminist empiricists have played an important role in (en)gendering transformation during the past twenty-one years of democracy in South Africa, the modalities of socially responsive participatory research have not been without challenges. One such challenge has been the balancing of feminist interests with the more pragmatic, empirical considerations of participatory research in developing, highly unequal contexts. To examine these challenges in more detail, we will present a case study based on a recent research project, and follow with an analysis of the key theme of participatory methods in developing-world contexts.

case study: the well-intentioned and unworkable participatory method

background to the project

Following the revision of the South African Sexual Offences Act (Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, 2015 [2007]) in 2007, our research team, together with four NGOs that provide direct services to survivors of sexual violence, monitored the implementation of this new Act (for example Artz, 2010; Galgut and Artz, 2016).

We were eager to examine whether substantive shifts in the law would make any difference in criminal justice practice, particularly where the Act is reliant on procedures that already existed within South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 (2014 [1977]). The project was designed with the intention of taking a qualitative, in-depth look at the implementation of the new Act. The chief objective was to undertake primary research on the management and processing of sexual offence cases through the collation, description and analysis of information relating to current police and prosecutorial practices in the management and processing of rape cases. Monitoring activities allowed us to acquire experiential and empirically-based knowledge about the implementation of the Act in a variety of contexts—such as policing, prosecution services, medico-legal and non-governmental survivor support services—and to ensure that our respective findings resulted in practical measures, instruments, theories and tools that could improve criminal justice and health-based outcomes for survivors of sexual offences.

The main (and ancillary studies) showed significant evidence of the challenges faced by sexual offence survivors in negotiating the criminal justice process, including managing their physical health and psychosocial well-being, particularly in the context of healthcare services. One of the most critical findings from the research was a disquieting lack of information provided to survivors in a number of service-provision contexts. Sexual offences survivors (and their guardians) were not well informed about criminal justice procedures and did not know what steps to follow to secure protection, assistance and care in either the criminal justice or health systems after a sexual offence occurred. Even rudimentary information about the survivor’s case, such as their police case number, the name of the investigating officer, bail hearing and court dates, the availability of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent the transmission of HIV, and measures to secure HIV testing of accused persons were not made available to rape survivors.

the Z-Card Project

In order to address this urgent and essential need for information on what to do after an incident of rape, our research unit secured a modest amount of funding from a local donor to develop, with partner NGOs, an innovative informational pocket-sized folding guide called a ‘Z-Card’. The Z-Card provides information to assist survivors in managing their health and criminal justice outcomes after a sexual offence. It carefully and systematically prompts survivors about what information and services they can expect from a variety of practitioners, and provides a space for survivors to record vital details about their case with the aim of improving information retention, case flow and case outcomes. It further allows survivors to record information, such as the dates of appointments, or the contact details of medical or criminal justice personnel, which both facilitates services as well as ensures some degree of compliance by service providers.

We set out to pilot the Z-Card and monitor its impact on improving information flow and outcomes. We believed that by providing crucial information to rape survivors, the guide might contribute to improving access to healthcare and the criminal justice process. We conducted the pilot in one of Cape Town’s largest townshipsFootnote 3 about 30 kilometres from the city centre, where just over half the population live in shacks and the rest in mostly low-cost formal housing. Unemployment is around 40 per cent and, although crime is high, policing is notoriously poor in the area.

The population (approximately 500,000) has a high rate of sexual assault cases, and the site provided a discrete locale to observe the use and circulation of the cards. Two partner NGOs operate from this township and provided bases from which to distribute and monitor the cards. One of the organisations is a dedicated sexual assault support service that provides counselling and support to survivors, including in preparation for and during criminal justice processes. The organisation is housed in an un-signposted house in a residential area to protect the anonymity of survivors, has between two and three counsellors at any given time, and sees about fifteen new cases per month. The other organisation is a dedicated medical centre that provides medical care, evidentiary forensic examinations and counselling services to survivors. It is housed within a large public healthcare facility, is open twenty-four hours a day, typically has one medical doctor and three counsellors, and sees about 700 clients a year. At both organisations, clients typically are female and about half are minors, although only those over 18 years old were included in the study.Footnote 4

Based on methodology that we had utilised previously to track attrition in domestic violence cases (Artz, 2008), we combined quantitative data collection through partner NGO providers with qualitative interviews to determine the experiences of sexual offence survivors. The two township-based partner organisations were to distribute the (numbered and therefore traceable) Z-Cards to survivors during first contact counselling sessions, and track if and how cards reappeared throughout their follow-up interactions with survivors at either organisation. As the two organisations usually refer survivors to each other, we believed that we would be able to track the flow of cards between the organisations at different phases of the health care and criminal justice process.

These organisations were also to enrol 350 survivors for telephone follow-up interviews to assess how useful the Z-Card had been for them in navigating the health and criminal justice systems. In return, we were to develop, print and distribute the Z-Cards to clients of the organisations, and ultimately provide evidence to fund and distribute the cards more widely. Such a negotiated research agreement is often referred to as an ‘access bargain’. All partners agreed about the importance of the project and provided significant input into the design and methodology of the project.

The roles of researchers and partner NGO providers were allocated based on ‘right person for the right task’ principles, while decision-making about the design and implementation of the project was collective, including the contents of the Z-Card. For example, partner NGO providers decided which principles of the study design and the methods worked best in their context, based on their knowledge and expertise, and the researchers developed the detailed study and ethics protocols on this basis. Partner NGOs were responsible for the collection of data within service delivery contexts, while the researchers collected the post-service delivery follow-up data. In this way, the research theoretically would not interfere too much with the everyday operation of the organisations, and researchers would have no direct contact with likely traumatised participants who only interacted with the service providers from whom they had come to seek assistance. This was especially important in the case of the medical centre where at least two-thirds of clients report within seventy-two hours of the incident, an extremely sensitive period in terms of emotional well-being, collecting physical evidence and accessing prophylaxis for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

After an exhaustive preparatory phase, the pilot began, but quickly proved to be unworkable. The partner organisations struggled to find the time not only to distribute the Z-Cards, but also to properly inform and enrol potential participants in the short time they had with each client, partially due to their large caseloads but also due to the complex and time-sensitive medical and reporting procedures that follow a sexual assault (for example, HIV post-exposure prophylaxis). Later, we encountered difficulty in eliciting responses from follow-up telephone interviews. Phone numbers that recruited participants had provided either did not exist anymore or were answered by someone else, or the participants claimed no knowledge of the Z-Card.

When it became clear that we could not collect data through telephone interviews, we contemplated instead asking brief questions when survivors were handed the Z-Card at the medical centre; however, this raised crucial questions about the timing, burden and ethical conduct of such invasive research at a time when survivors are often most traumatised. We deliberated over these questions with the NGOs, carefully weighing our ‘need for evidence’, which, as it became increasingly clear, could only be collected at this particular point in time, with our ethical imperative of ‘doing no harm’ to the survivors at a time when they were most vulnerable and when information was most critical. We hypothesised that the Z-Card would be most useful during this time in providing clear information, reducing confusion and guiding survivors. However, in order to provide the evidence to justify the card, we would have needed to add another layer of invasive questioning to the process. After careful consideration, the pilot was declared unworkable and the project concluded.

The evaluation of the project was an opportunity for the researchers to reflect internally as a research unit about how we do feminist research. We pondered over the compromises between pragmatic research decisions and our ethical, professional and social responsiveness commitments towards ensuring that perspectives from the ground are heard, written up and disseminated into spaces that conventionally ignore or silence them; over what it means to be ‘outsiders going in’ and to ‘get inside and present these experiences to the outside’; and whether in this project, which aimed to adhere to our principles of participatory methods, we lived up to our own promises. This article is the result of our deliberations.


It has been argued that when the entire research process is directed by feminist concerns, theory, politics and ethics, and is grounded in the centrality of gender, this makes a particular piece of research specifically feminist. A feminist approach points to principles and practices that should be applied to all research (Kauffman, 1993; Kim, 1997), including: paying attention to the importance of gender as a central element of social life (DeVault, 1996); challenging the norm of objectivity to incorporate subjectivity into research; reflexivity throughout the research process, including negotiating the power imbalance between researcher and research subject (Harding, 1987; Bourke et al., 2009); avoiding harm or exploitation of those who are the subjects and objects of knowledge (DeVault, 1996); and gendered empowerment or emancipation through social research (Cook and Fonow, 1986; DeVault, 1996).

However, there is little to suggest that specific research methods, or techniques, are particularly feminist. The research techniques used by feminists have been generated by and accumulated across a range of disciplines and ontological and epistemological orientations, and adapted for use under the principles of sound feminist research. For this reason, some see the tendency of feminist research to be largely problem-driven as a key strength: feminists experiment with various types of methods when seeking to address (or redress) specific research questions, and individual researchers employ different methods as they confront new questions (Reinharz and Davidman, 1992). In early discussions of feminist research, conventional research methods were sharply criticised as masculinist and positivist, asserting an unassailable ‘truth’ through scientific method (Mies, 1983; Keller, 1985). More recently, however, there has been an acknowledgement that feminist research can use both quantitative and qualitative techniques, viewing neither as inherently masculinist nor feminist, and both holding the potential to be consistent with feminist epistemologies and politics (Sprague and Zimmerman, 1989; Campbell and Wasco, 2000).

As a result, there seems to be some consensus in contemporary feminist literature that there are no feminist research methods, per se, but perhaps that there is a common feminist methodology, in the sense that feminists share a similar intellectual position about the means and ends of social investigation (Harding, 1987; Salo and Mama, 2001; Fonow and Cook, 2005). However, even this approach seems too homogenising of the vast scholarship produced under the banner of feminism. For example, black feminists have called into question the foregrounding of gender as a feminist concern, highlighting how matters of race, for instance, appear as important and inherently linked to issues of gender, and asserting that liberal feminist claims to universal allegiance of women under feminism glosses over important distinctions in racialised gendered experiences (Hill Collins, 1986). Similar arguments have been made with regard to other categories of identity and oppression, such as disability.

Given these conflicts, the idea of a single feminist methodology seems both unlikely and inconsistent with the realities of varying feminist ideologies and research foci. Reflecting on the debate about feminist research, which they helped catalyse almost two decades ago, Fonow and Cook (2005, p. 2213) assert that ‘There has never been one correct feminist epistemology generating one correct feminist methodology, […] feminist scholars work within, against, and across epistemologies, often combining elements from different perspectives’. Congruent with the emphasis in subjective experiences, feminist researchers, depending on their context and perspective, engage with diverse methods to produce diverse knowledge about social phenomenon.

Whilst we maintain that feminist research can include a multiplicity of research techniques, there has been particular emphasis on participatory approaches within qualitative feminist research. For example, Cook and Fonow (1986) and Cancian (1992) promote interactive methods in feminist research. In the South African context, the work of the women’s collective Feminist Alternatives (2011) exemplifies such an approach where the collective was involved in defining research goals, defining themes and writing up the book My Dream is to Be Bold. Other interactive methods cited in feminist research have included the participation of research participants in data collection, interpretation of findings, and implementation of research results (Cook and Fonow, 1986).

Pain and Francis (2003), however, argue that often participation can be rather superficial, garner only certain kinds of information, and not meet the needs of the research projects, as they can be shaped by social and political contexts and the relationship with the researcher. Enslin (1994) cautions that even feminist work—and the deeply engaged and intimate nature of some feminist methods—has the potential to be just as exploitative as more positivist, masculinist research methods. Detachment from your research participant can, in certain instances, be a more ethical and appropriate method than an inclusive, interactive engagement with her. Feminist challenges to more positivist social science methods of research ‘demand greater reflection by the researcher with the aim of producing more inclusive methods sensitive to the power relations in fieldwork’ (England, 1994, p. 80). Gorelick (1991, p. 469) forces feminists to deepen our thinking of working in the field and to reflect on our positionality within it when she states: ‘To her interaction with participants, the researcher brings her social location, culture, motivations, limitations, ignorances, skills, education, resources, familiarity with theory and methodology, the trained incapacities of socialisation in dominant institutions, and an outside perspective that may be useful as well as troublesome’.

In acknowledging these tensions, Bourke et al. (2009) urge us to reconsider the ways in which we collaborate, such that the research purpose is understood and meaningful for all involved and gaps of partnership are bridged. Some feminist scholars have meaningfully engaged with this concept when collaborating with NGOs. For example, Nagar and Raju (2003) attend to the complexity of working with NGOs in Southern, particularly Indian, contexts, highlighting the need to challenge donor agendas and question the role of the researcher in relation to NGO collaborators. Similarly, Benson and Nagar (2006), working in South Africa and India, argue for more earnest sustained reciprocity in both research process and output; however, they focus on grass-roots NGOs and people’s movements, and it is unclear whether their approach could be usefully employed where NGO partners are not primarily activists but direct service providers, as in our case.

Our case study showcases a particular, specific participatory research methodology that has not garnered much attention in the literature so far: participatory research relationships with service-provider NGOs, not only as research participants but also as ‘mediating’ or ‘implementing’ partners. We are not service providers and, in our research, do not deal with traumatic responses; responsible research for us is to use ‘experts’ to engage in research. Given that we mostly focus on gender-based violence, this means that we rely on NGO collaborators to implement research, especially in sensitive situations and with vulnerable groups, such as with rape survivors at the first point of contact with the health and criminal justice system. In the following discussion of our case study, we critically reflect on the key methodological issues raised by feminist researchers and discuss key themes pertaining to the South African context.

the realities of community-based research and with vulnerable groups

contextual realities and ‘doing good’: the feminist dilemma

There are certain incontestable ‘truths’ about the South African context: high levels of gender-based violence, poor access to state services, a transitioning state and, in some instances, political interference. As a result, many South African feminists engage directly with social, political and legal processes as an absolutely critical feature of their scholarship, which not only ensures an engaged, informed scholarship but also an important part of democracy-building. We are well aware of criticisms of our role in ‘evidence-based advocacy’,Footnote 5 not to mention the delicate balancing act of articulating life stories and experiences with ‘systems’ and the development of theory that is sufficiently ‘scientific’ to meet academic standards. In the post-apartheid context of South Africa, these issues are particularly loaded. Nama and Swartz (2002) point out that local communities in South Africa are very aware of the fact that in the past, researchers (who were mainly white) would collect data on marginalised people without making any contribution to improvement of their lives, and remain guarded about the benefits and intentions of research. For this reason, researchers in South Africa and elsewhere in the Global South cautiously negotiate access through local stakeholders (Mosavel et al., 2005). At the same time, feminist and other participatory researchers feel compelled to engage with the experiences of marginalised people and to include them in conversations about policy development and implementation. However, sometimes our good intentions, no matter how well-evidenced and designed, consulted over, negotiated and ethically implemented, are not suitable or relevant in certain contexts.

relationships of solidarity or convenience: researchers, collaborators, participants

Our mutual interdependence with NGO collaborators is central to how our research unit does feminist research in the South African context, meaning that there are two central relationships at play within our research process: that between the researcher and collaborating partner(s), such as the two NGOs that implemented the research in this case study, and that between the collaborating partner and the research participants, in this case the counsellors at the two NGOs and their clients. We are constantly negotiating, nurturing and leveraging our relationship with the NGOs that we work with and vice versa. This symbiotic relationship involves:

  • our reliance on NGOs for support and referral for research participants, in much of our work on gender-based violence, in the event that our research raises traumatic issues or unearths ongoing violence that must be addressed;

  • shared forums and platforms for advocacy around gender-based violence, including collaboration on submissions to parliament, advocacy and media campaigns;

  • NGOs acting as direct collaborators in research projects, including contributing on research design, and often acting as implementing partners, that is, eliciting information from research participants (often their clients) as with this case study;

  • NGOs acting as research participants themselves, either in providing important data about the service provision context or as proxies for extremely vulnerable clients (e.g. clients with intellectual disabilities);

  • NGOs receiving project funding (for implementation) or outcomes of research projects including learning briefs, training and service provision tools (such as the Z-Card used in our case study);

  • NGOs relying on academic evidence for (self-)evaluation, to support their fundraising, and occasionally in court proceedings (when advocating for a survivor or in public interest litigation).

These various roles and engagements can be illustrated with the ‘access bargain’, where informed participation, inclusion, cooperation, obligation and ideology are negotiated, sometimes against competing or contradictory aims. Where researchers propose a research agenda—based on findings from previous research, the desire to test theory, to refute or promote knowledge claims or as a response to an apparent or evident need—NGOs weigh the relevance of this research for their own programmatic, advocacy or (self-)evaluation purposes, including against the various other benefits that maintaining a relationship with us provides. Similarly, NGOs may approach us with a research agenda, which we would equally evaluate.

The access bargain is an attempt to balance research requirements (e.g. science, ethics and relevance) with potential intrusions on everyday operations of an organisation, not to mention the possibility of findings that might contradict or challenge existing knowledge or practices. The access bargain should balance power, embolden rights and obligations, and ensure equal benefit from research processes and findings. It should create space for both perspectives and a shared goal of some form of change. For our research team, it is an opportunity to reinforce organisations’ fight for funding and stability as well as external institutional reforms, such as policy reform for the improvement of access to, and quality of, services to survivors of gender-based violence. Finally, the access bargain should result in specific design decisions crafted to ensure that the research is not disempowering or exploitative and includes elements of capacity-building, ongoing dialogue, reflection and flexibility.

However, the access bargain, as the term suggests, is an exercise of agencies, a negotiation of the terms of research and of continuing relationships, and this is not without its tensions. Although organisations may freely participate in a project, or refuse to do so, and likewise we may or may not acquiesce to their requests, we each attempt to assert our aims within the quid pro quo of our existing relationship. For example, the two collaborating organisations in the case study actively sought to participate in conception, design and implementation of the research project based on our shared history of collaboration and gender-based violence advocacy, the incentive of receiving the Z-Cards to distribute to their clients and improve their own services, as well as on the possibility of future collaboration; however, when the research process proved inconvenient to their primary goal of service provision, enrolling participants was not prioritised. Likewise, we were eager to engage these organisations based on our existing relationship and shared goals, but above all to ethically access vulnerable research participants through them, and to do participatory research; as this proved unworkable in this case, we chose, with consultation, to end the collaboration.

On the other hand, the relationship between NGOs, as research collaborators or implementing partners, and their clients, the research participants, is also vital to our research. Here tensions may include:

  • the role of the NGO as both service provider and research partner;

  • prioritising immediate survivor services, and longer-term research goals;

  • balancing the emotional role of supporting survivors with ‘objective’ data collection;

  • balancing occasions where NGO service providers may be both research collaborators (in relation to their clients) and participants themselves (in relation to researchers);

  • managing NGOs’ own subjective priorities for service provision against being observed or assessed as research participants.

Essentially NGOs are ‘stuck in the middle’ between their roles as service providers and research collaborators, and must negotiate their actions in and against both their relationships with clients (i.e. research participants) and researchers. In this way, we, for the purposes of research, insert ourselves into the service provision process and impose on the service provider-client relationship. However, NGO service providers are able to manage this dynamic and assert their agency and priorities in this situation, in ways that are not always favourable for research. In our case study, although we had a long working history with the two NGO collaborators and they were eagerly involved in the research project from conception, during the process, the organisations made strategic choices based on the immediate demands of their service provision role at the expense of the research project. On the one hand, implementing partners are the most proximal to survivors, and are likely to be invested both professionally and emotionally, making it difficult to balance the needs of the research with that of the client. Yet, given their proximity to research participants (i.e. survivors), they may have not only prioritised service provision, but also made an astute decision about ethical research. Given that this was a research collaboration, we have to trust and respect these priorities and decisions in good faith, even if they contributed to the failure of the research project.

participation as a preferred method?

The issue of agency of both participants and collaborators continues to be an important concern for feminist research. We know that individuals consent to, resist, and reshape the gendered social relations of power within a complex matrix of domination and subordination, including within research relationships, and that sometimes their agency is directed in ways that are contrary to the research process. For example, Holland et al. (2010, p. 373) ‘caution against the assumption that this participatory approach necessarily produces ‘better’ research data’, stating that if participants are fully involved in all dissemination there is a risk of sanitised research results. Shah (2014) also shows how participants can follow a staid script based on what they interpret as both what researchers want to hear and what is beneficial to themselves and their community. Furthermore, where participation is tied to incentives, participants and collaborators may well engage in research for their own benefit, and in ways that do not produce ‘good data’ or, in our case, any data at all. This may be especially relevant where through participatory methods, such individuals or organisations are central to and have decision-making power over the research implementation.

Fonow and Cook (2005, p. 2211) also note that the reality of feminist research often requires much more pragmatic questions, including ‘How would policy makers receive our scholarship? Would the subjects of our efforts need or even want this information, let alone be empowered by it? Would they want to play an active role in the production of feminist knowledge?’ Concerned with improving the lives of women and other vulnerable groups in South Africa through evidence-based advocacy and policy development, our research unit necessarily engages these questions. Specifically, the research experience, elucidated in the case study, raises the questions: What if the collaborators’ or participants’ definition of empowerment is antithetical to that of the feminist research(er)? What if their short-term goals are in conflict with the long-term transformative goals of the research? And finally: How do you balance the needs of gender-based violence service provision and feminist research when they are mutually related and nested within each other?

good intentions can be a burden on service delivery organisations

In reflecting on the reasons for the (relative) failure of our case study, a number of challenges quickly became clear. First, working in consultation with a number of NGOs and experts in sexual violence health services who have expertise on the processes in the criminal justice system, the health system, and with the South African Department of Social Services, not only required careful time management and planning, but also slowed down the research process. The discussion on the content and design of the Z-Card took several months, including a number of redrafts of the content based on ethical issues (e.g. how to integrate the essentially ‘remote service’ of the guide with existing services) and ideological concerns (e.g. how to make the content and language of the card survivor-centred). These processes were beneficial in that they ensured that the Z-Cards were accessible and provided meaningful information. However, the limited ability of NGOs to commit time and capacity to engage substantively with revised versions of the Z-Card hampered progress and also meant that those involved were absent from providing services during that time.

We took a community-driven distribution approach in order to ensure that local methods of information-sharing were taken into account. Both NGOs, as well as a leading medical practitioner examining sexual offence survivors, were instrumental in the distribution process. The medical practitioner’s well-respected relationships with the local police, government departments and various ‘feeder’ organisations provided the access required to ensure community ‘buy-in’. However, given the organisations’ continuous heavy burden, the medical practitioner’s limited availability, as well as the complex and shifting socio-political context of service provision in organisations’ locations, research requirements placed a considerable additional burden of work on our partners.

competing concerns

An important consideration in the research process was the involvement of survivors of sexual violence as recipients and users of the Z-Card. While it was crucial to include them for their insight on information needs and their experiences of the health and criminal justice systems, engaging survivors at their first point of entry may also contribute to the trauma and stress of navigating health and criminal justice systems. Our previous research has repeatedly demonstrated that clients and service providers are eager to provide information about their experiences of the healthcare and criminal justice systems. In fact, survivors of domestic and sexual violence often found the process of research a welcomed form of a follow-up service.

The timing of research involving sexual offence survivors raises its own set of competing ethical concerns. Concerns include the feminist commitment to ‘doing no harm’, in the sense of making a deliberate and concerted effort in the design and conduct of research not to enhance the trauma or confusion experienced by survivors (which may take the form of information, questions, or unknown persons in proximity to the survivor overload), and the need to collect empirical data from a very specific category of research participants to whom access may only be available for a brief window when present for post-sexual offence emergency care. While levels of vulnerability are both subjective and individual, in our experience there generally exists a marked difference in the levels of trauma, shock, confusion and general vulnerability evidenced in sexual offence survivors 1) within forty-eight hours of the most recent sexual assault, 2) within days or weeks thereof, and 3) within months or years thereof. Not only does timing have implications for the potentially trauma- or confusion-enhancing impact of research, but also for the usefulness of information imparted to survivors by researchers and the scientific value of the data collected. Socio-economic and other factors may also impact the research. Survivors may feel compelled to participate and provide information or perceive services to be dependent on their participation in the research—calling into question consent.

Whilst feminist approaches to research should indeed drive our ethics and shape our approach to research, our case study demonstrates that the true balance of social contexts, power-relations between researchers and the researched, as well as our commitment to progressive, socially responsive scholarship, is far from resolved. It is not surprising that feminist research does not prescribe an actual method. Instead, feminist research scholarship forces us to continually reconceptualise, redesign, renegotiate and, of course, redress our objectives, our approach and the use of our findings. It argues for positionality, situatedness and responsible emancipatory scholarship. From a developing-world perspective, it also forces us to negotiate needs, local social priorities and research agendas that are transformative. This means calling into question the relevance of research and the potential impact it has on transitional contexts. It also means questioning what is appropriate in specific contexts, where our notions of equality are pitted against cultural relevance and where feminism has emerged in a manner that does not fit neatly into Western paradigms, however aspirational.


In our case study, we discuss one context-specific feminist methodology and critically interrogate its meaning for the stipulation of the participatory feminist approach. Feminist projects within transitional or emerging democracies like South Africa need to persistently examine how women and other gendered underclasses are positioned historically and contemporarily, as well as how diverse structural conditions maintain inequality. Researchers (feminist or otherwise) working within contexts of rapid socio-political transition and extreme inequality are faced with a number of challenges. The already interminable concerns of working with vulnerable groups are amplified by a prodigious climate of ‘need’, not to mention a critical lack of resources and capacity on the ground to meet these needs. In such contexts, and especially gender-based violence research, we favour a participatory model that is based on collaboration with NGOs that both facilitates access to vulnerable participants and mediates this vulnerability. Concurrently, there is an ongoing weighing of methodological and ethical considerations throughout the course of feminist empirical projects, which includes designing methods that are participatory, collaborative and inclusive while respecting the demands of service provision and the priorities of collaborating NGOs, balancing both continuous engagement with and the autonomy/privacy of research participants, and maintaining experiential and academically rigour. In light of this, our research standards, conduct, ethics and considerations need to be continually—and scrupulously—reviewed throughout the research process to ensure inclusion, participation, relevance and, most of all, avoidance of any foreseeable harm.


  1. 1.

    Examples include the establishment of 1) the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995 (2005 [1995]); 2) the South African Human Rights and Gender Commissions in terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (1996); 3) the South African Constitutional Court; and 4) the Equality Courts in terms of the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 (2000), respectively.

  2. 2.

    For example, the National Policy Guidelines for Victims of Sexual Offences, 1998 (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 1998) and the Policy Framework and Strategy for Shelters for Victims of Domestic Violence in South Africa of 2003 (Department of Social Development, 2003).

  3. 3.

    ‘Township’ in the South African context refers to the underdeveloped urban living areas that, from the late-nineteenth century until the end of apartheid, were reserved for non-white residents. They were often delineated just outside the bounds of the white city centres so that the black residents could provide day labour to the centre and return to the townships daily.

  4. 4.

    The information provided in this section is purposefully approximate and unreferenced so as not to divulge the locations, and hence the identities, of the partner organisations.

  5. 5.

    Such criticisms are centred on the position that research questions determined by ‘need’ or out of an advocacy position are ‘subjective’ and not capable of producing ‘objective’ evidence. We contend that research rigour and ‘objectivity’ can be achieved, regardless of the origin of the research question, guided by research design and reflexivity.


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The case study project was funded by DG Murray Trust, Cape Town.

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Correspondence to Alex Müller.

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Artz, L., Meer, T., Galgut, H. et al. participation in practice: a case study of a collaborative project on sexual offences in South Africa. Fem Rev 115, 79–96 (2017).

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  • participatory research
  • feminist methodologies
  • gender-based violence
  • sexual offences
  • South Africa