An expansive view of ‘rigorous’ research is needed, particularly when studying complex health and human rights issues in settings where the power imbalances between research participants, users and producers is heightened. This article examines how applying participatory, feminist and anthropological methods in gender-based violence research can hold researchers accountable to both acknowledging and explicitly addressing these power disparities. We provide examples and reflections from Empowered Aid, participatory action research that examines sexual exploitation and abuse in relation to humanitarian aid distributions, and tests ways for making aid safer. The study is grounded in ethnographic research by Syrian and South Sudanese women and girls living as refugees in Lebanon and Uganda, to safely take an active role in asking and answering questions about their own lives.