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Researching Sensitive Topics:
Investigations of the Sexual Abuse of
Women in Uganda and Girls in Tanzania

Helen Liebling
Clinical Psychologist, PhD Student,
Centre for the Study of Women and Gender,
University of Warwick, UK

andShilu Shah
Graduate Teaching Assistant, PhD Student
Law School, University of Warwick, UK


When investigating 'sensitive' topics as researchers, we have a responsibility to conduct ethical research. However, in this article we argue that although important consideration should be given to cultural sensitivities, and the support and safety of all those involved when conducting such research, this should not be at the expense of the prevalent continued silence surrounding abuse of women and children. Over the last couple of years we have been researching the abuse of women during the civil war in Uganda (seeMusisi et al, 1999,Liebling and Ojiambo-Ochieng, 2000)and the sexual abuse and exploitation of the girl-child in Tanzania (Shah, research in progress, 2001) as part of our on-going PhD research. The observations and commentary in this article are based on these experiences. Firstly, we will look at definitions of a sensitive topic and outline their limitations. We will then briefly discuss some dilemmas involved in conducting sensitive research, especially in terms of issues relating to cultural sensitivity and the potential dangers for those being researched.

Keywords:Research, Sensitive Topic, Child, Sexual Abuse, Girl Child, Uganda, Definition, Investigation, Exploitation.

This is a Commentary published on 21 June 2001.

Citation: Liebling H and Shah S, 'Researching Sensitive Topics: Investigations of the Sexual Abuse of Women in Uganda and Girls in Tanzania',2001 (1)Law, Social Justice and Global Development (LGD). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction -Definitions of a Sensitive Topic

There are several definitions of what constitutes a sensitive topic. For instance, Sieber and Stanley define socially sensitive research as:

'Studies in which there are potential consequences or implications, either directly for the participants in the research or for the class of individuals represented by the research'(Sieber and Stanley, 1988,p.49).

This definition is broad in scope and allows for the inclusion of topics that ordinarily may not be though of as sensitive. In addition, it alerts researchers to their responsibilities to the wider society. However the term sensitive as defined by Sieber and Stanley becomes synonymous with controversial because they do not specify the scope or nature of the consequences and implications of doing this type of research. Moreover, their definition tends to draw away from the more technical and methodological problems of conducting sensitive research. For example in research in Uganda, there was a need for Isis-WICCE[ 1], a women's non-governmental organisation, to spend two years building up trust with the communities of the Luwero district before women 'spoke out' to researchers about their experiences of rape and torture during the civil war (seeMusisi et al, 1999).

Therefore, an alternative approach according to Renzetti and Lee(1993) is to startwith the observation that sensitive topics are those that seem either threatening, or contain an element of risk in some way. Hence, such research involves potential costs and consequent problems for both the participants and researchers. Moreover, Lee suggests that sensitive topics include areas which are private, stressful or sacred(1993, p.4), or potentially expose stigmatising or incriminating information. Researching abuse of women and children may do both of these things and therefore have the potential to cause pain and harm to individuals who are already experiencing oppression.

Broadly speaking, research on sensitive topics has had contradictory outcomes. On one hand, difficulties associated with sensitive research have tended to inhibit adequate conceptualisation and measurement (Herzberger, 1993). For instance, it is difficult to assess accurately the number of women who were raped during the Luwero civil war and the number of girls who are sexually abused and exploited in Tanzania, as many of them may not have been/or are unable to speak about their experiences due to fear and the cultural sensitivities which surround these issues. On the other hand however, problems raised by sensitive topics have led to technical innovation and have contributed to methodological developments e.g. strategies for asking sensitive questions on surveys (seeBradburn and Sudman, 1979) and technical means for preserving the confidentiality of research data (seeBoruch and Cecil, 1979). They have also given rise to a growing concern for human rights issues. Furthermore, by its very nature, research on sensitive topics, tends to reveal the limits of existing ethical theories as it sharpens the ethical dilemmas already present.

2. Investigation of Sensitive Topics – Research in Progress

Whilst investigating sensitive issues involving members of a given society, the choice of method for field research is often based on qualitative research methods such as participant observation or in-depth interviewing. Such research methods however, require researchers to be ethical in their conduct, which in turn demands 'cultural sensitivity'. Cultural sensitivity refers to the understanding and approaches that enable one to gain access to individuals in society, to learn about their lifestyles, and to communicate in ways that the individuals understand, believe, regard as relevant to themselves, and are likely to act upon. Sieber argues that:

'Cultural sensitivity has nothing to do with the art and music of a culture, and almost everything to do with respect, shared decision making and effective communication. Too often, researchers ignore the values, the life-style and the cognitive and affective world of the subjects. They impose their own, perhaps in an attempt to reform people whose culture they would like to eradicate, or perhaps simply out of ignorance about the subjects reality' (1992, p.129).

Thus in order to attain cultural sensitivities, it is imperative that any topic the research touches upon is couched in terms of the participants basic assumptions (not the researchers). Accordingly, the needs and fears of the participants, including their views, norms and values need to be understood and responded to in a constructive manner. Concerns about control, autonomy, and exploitation will always emerge in any research, which involves the attempt by one group to study or influence the characteristics of another group. Therefore, it is essential to establish a relationship between the researcher and the participants built on trust, respect, multilateral and shared decision-making, and equal-status. Similarly, it is also important that the researcher keeps in touch with all opinions circulating in the community in relation to the research. These may include views about the researchers motives and the risks or benefits of participating in the research.

Nonetheless, grave difficulties arise when researching sensitive topics that have traditionally been marked off by strong, physical, symbolic and moral boundaries in any given society, as is the case of matters relating to sexual abuse in Uganda and Tanzania. Thus research into these areas has been strongly influenced and constrained by the fear of offending sensibilities by trespassing into restrictive domains. For instance, research into intra-familial sexual abuse of girls in Tanzania has been restrictive, owing to the cultural definitions stressing the intimate and personal character of family life.

However, our own research findings so far reveal that the occurrence of rape of women in Uganda during the war and the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls in Tanzania is high (seeMusisi et al, 1999, p.7, Shah, research in progress, 2001). Whilst conducting research in Uganda the levels of rape of women during the civil war was estimated to be between 50-70% (Lubanga and Mwaka, 1998), with the most common form of torture of women being sexual traumatisation at 58.3% (Musisi et al, 1999, p.4). During this later study, a 68-year-old woman told us she was raped during the Luwero conflict in front of her son and daughter-in-law. Her daughter-in-law was also raped. As she narrated her story she linked the rape to the death of her children claiming that because the action was in front of her child, this caused the death of others. She believed that she needed purification but had no money. The symbol of purification in her tribe was a white goat. The project was able to give her a white goat and in this way the woman felt that her future and family would be protected. This example illustrates the need for researchers and research projects carried out in this area to be very sensitively involved and responsive to their participants.

In Tanzania, research indicated that the sexual abuse and exploitation of the girl-child as a social problem has gained increasing recognition from both the civil society and government. Whilst it is difficult to know the exact extent and magnitude of the problem owing to the lack of any uniform or overall study in this area, independent projects and media reports suggest that between 1990 and 1994, 2,432 girls had been raped and between 1990 and 1995, 1,922 girls had been sexually molested[ 2]. It is important to note that these figures only involve those cases that had been officially reported. In terms of the commercial sexual exploitation of girls, the UNICEF study (1999, p.274) found that this practice was prevalent in several parts of the country.

The research in Tanzania has highlighted that the factors attributed to the high occurrence of the sexual abuse of girl-children, is linked to the construction of their sexuality. For example, the threat of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, has caused some men to believe that if they have sexual intercourse with a young virgin they will be cured of such diseases and the HIV virus. Such misconceptions which have led to the sexual exploitation of young girls are based on the overall construction of female sexuality and purity of virgin girls, especially since sexually transmitted diseases are seen as women's diseases and therefore the cure can only be found in a virgin girl.

A case study in Uganda further illustrates issues around HIV/AIDS (Impact, 1999, p.11,Isis-WICCE, 2000). Devota bravely spoke out about her experiences during the Luwero civil war. She took up arms in 1983 to fight for freedom and peace. However, she was captured, and gang raped by a total of 21 soldiers which destroyed her reproductive organs. Devota also lost her husband during the war. However due to the traditional social construction of the Baganda tribe in Central Uganda that a married woman is the only 'decent' woman in society, she had no option but to remarry and protect 'her status'. Devota was also the only person who could care for the rest of the family. During the research she spoke for the first time about her experiences and also discovered she had contracted HIV/AIDS. She died on 28th July 1999 at Mulago hospital, Kampala.

Thus, whilst it is important to respect the cultural norms, values and traditions prevalent in Uganda and Tanzania, this should not be at the expense of the rights and safety of the women and children. It must be remembered that culture is often used as an excuse to disguise practices that continually oppress and violate women and children. Moreover, researching sensitive topics such as women's experiences of violence and rape during the civil war years in Uganda, and the sexual abuse and exploitation of the girl child in Tanzania, helps to expose the manipulative and invented elements of the culture. Similarly, we hope that our research extends existing knowledge on the abuse of women and children in Uganda and Tanzania, and further unveils areas of concern.

3. Conclusion

This article of research in progress has briefly touched on some of the issues of defining and researching sensitive topics, with specific examples from fieldwork carried out in Uganda and Tanzania. It is important, as researchers working in this field that approaches to these issues continue to be discussed. Research in these areas sharpens the ethical dilemmas faced and reveals the limitations of existing theories.

It is essential to understand, recognise, and exercise cultural sensitivities whilst conducting research involving members of any given society. Notwithstanding, it is equally as important to remember that the abuse of women and children occurs across all cultures, classes and societies. Therefore, cultural sensitivities should not mar the need to conduct research on topics relating to the abuse of women and children that may have traditionally been restricted.

Issues of confidentiality are extremely important and need to be carefully thought through as related to individual projects and the needs and contexts of those involved (seeJewkes et al, 2000) We should take care to consider all the ethical implications of our work. As Sieber and Stanley argue:

'Sensitive research addresses some of society's pressing social issues and policy questions. Although ignoring the ethical issues in sensitive research is not a responsible approach to science, shying away from controversial topics, simply because they are controversial, is also an avoidance of responsibility' (1988, p.55).


1. Isis-WICCE is Women's International Cross-Cultural Exchange, an international women's non-governmental organisation based in Kampala, Uganda.

2. Mapunda, L (May 25 1998) 'Sex Bill not Intended to Violate Men's Rights' The Guardian (Tanzania).


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