Eliminating Violence Against Women: The Role for Data

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Sunday, 25 November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the first of 16 Days of Activism, ending on December 10th: International Human Rights Day.

The 16 Days of Activism is a global campaign calling for an end to one of the most persistent violations of human rights worldwide: violence against women.

According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.

Violence harms women around the world in many ways, restricting:

  • Access to education
  • Ability to earn income
  • Women’s public voice
  • And putting women at risk during unpaid household tasks such as water and firewood collection

Above all, it is disempowering and can have long lasting physical and psychological effects. It is also the cause of death for too many women worldwide.

Right now, we don’t have all the information we need to understand and respond to women’s experiences of violence.

We sat down with Dr Sharon Bessell of the ANU IDM Team to discuss the role data can play in eliminating violence against women.

What do we currently know about violence against women around the world?

We know a lot about violence against women, and we know the numbers are absolutely appalling.

The UNFPA and UN Women in particular have done a lot of work around gathering data of women’s experience of violence across their lifetimes, prevalence studies as they’re often called, of violence against women.

We know from these studies that the numbers vary according to age and place within their lifecourse. But we know on average around one in three women have experienced violence from intimate partners in their lifetime.

If you add the other forms of gendered violence that women experience outside intimate relationships, the figures would be much higher. But we know from the information we have that the numbers are shocking.

One of the things we see from the UNFPA data that is really worrying is the prevalence rate of women aged 15 to 19 who have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime, these rates are just under 30%. This is very disturbing  for young women who most probably have had a relatively short period in intimate partner relationships.

This is something to be very worried about, both because of the impact on girls’ lives, but also because it is establishing patterns of violence and disempowerment that are likely to be terribly damaging both now and into the future.  The violence these girls are experiencing will shape their future trajectories in terms of their sense of self-worth, their education, their employment opportunities, and in every other way we can imagine.

Are there knowledge or data gaps in relation to women’s experience of violence? What are they?

That’s a great question. I think we need to start by recognising that while there are data gaps, we do actually have a lot of data. We certainly have enough data to act on. We know from the prevalence studies that at least one in three women around the world are facing intimate partner violence.

We know from credible studies in Australia that the figures are similar here – one in three women have experienced violence from their partners.

We know that in countries like PNG the numbers are much higher, with upwards of 80% of women experiencing violence and similar numbers of men acknowledging that they have committed violence against their partners.

So we actually have a lot of data, there is no excuse not to act because we don’t have sufficient data.

But there are some areas where we don’t have enough data. Take the experience of violence in the workplace for example – the #MeToo campaign has revealed the tip of the iceberg in terms of what women are facing outside the home.

We don’t have enough data to understand fully girls’ experience of emotional, physical or sexual violence in schools. And that’s an enormous problem. We do know from qualitative research  that girls’ experiences at schools are sometimes very violent. That’s an area where we do need more information.

We also need to pay more attention to the drivers of this violence against women. Why is it that workplaces or institutions like school allow violence against women and girls to occur? Why does violence against women and girls occur in some workplaces or schools, but not in others?

Part of that is understanding men and boys’ experience of violence. We do know that in some contexts boys and men experience high levels of violence. That may be interpersonal violence or structural violence, which includes violence from agents of the state and patterns of exclusion and marginalisation. So how does that impact men’s attitudes and behaviours towards violence against women?

We need to understand – in a sophisticated way – where men fit into the picture. How they can act as supporters of efforts to end violence against women, and how violence against men – usually perpetrated by another man – acts as a driver of violence against women?

Image showing a bar graph with 5 bars, all dark blue except for one bar which is empty and has a dotted line surrounding it. There is a magnifying glass over this missing bar.
While we do have enough data to act on, there are some areas where the gender data gap persists, such as violence in the workplace.

Why do these gaps matter? What role can data play in ending violence against women?

For any kind of intervention, whether it’s government policy or services, organisational programs, we need to base any interventions in an understanding of what’s actually going on and where we can have the greatest impact. Data helps us identify what we need to do.

We also need data to measure and monitor whether the things we are doing are making any impact.

Sometimes the value of data is showing that despite interventions, the problems are not being resolved – the issues are not going away. So, how do we then need to re-calibrate, or reframe our responses?

It’s important to think about how data can contribute to ending violence against women, and to understand data in quite a sophisticated way, we need quantitative data. We need to know with some assurance how many women are experiencing violence, what types of violence they’re experiencing, which groups of women are most vulnerable to violence.

But we also need qualitative research alongside quantitative data to illuminate the impact of violence on women’s lives. And on the lives of those around them.

So when we think about data it’s not just the numbers, it’s also about giving insight to what those numbers mean for real women who are dealing with the consequences of violence. We need deep understanding of what causes violence against women, and what can end it.

We need to be cautious of seeing something like the #MeToo campaign as data. While campaigns like this are incredibly important in identifying where the issues are and what the problems are, we can’t rely on them alone to guide our actions.

Those campaigns do tell us what we need to know more about, and where we need to undertake robust rigorous research on which to base our interventions. They help us identify areas where we need more credible data and information to guide our actions.

The IDM measures 15 dimensions of life, why does this multidimensional approach matter to our understanding of violence against women?

The IDM matters to our understanding of violence against women in a number of ways. One of the dimensions of the IDM focusses on violence. The IDM is a measure of multi-dimensional poverty, and it’s really important to understand here that we are not suggesting through the IDM that violence only impacts people who are living in poverty.

We know that violence is experienced by women across the socioeconomic spectrum, the myth that once existed that domestic violence didn’t happen in well off or middle-class families has been completely busted – we know that that is not true.

So the IDM is in no way suggesting that violence only exists in contexts of poverty.

But it does help us to understand the ways in which poverty across a range of dimensions intersects with violence. And the ways in which contexts of violence potentially make poverty worse or different, or a particular experience for women and men across the life course.

So, for example, we ask about people’s experience of violence directly but we also ask about people’s experiences when they go to collect water. We found in the participatory research that underpins the IDM, that women and girls living in contexts of poverty are  often particularly vulnerable when going to unlit areas of their village, or when they’re going down to the stream, to collect water. And they have no choice but to go collect that water, there are no other water supplies.

But they can be  extremely vulnerable to violence as a result.  It is important that we know if such violence is occurring, where, and to which groups of women.

We also ask questions in the IDM’s work dimension around whether people have been subject to abuse at work, whether people have experienced humiliating treatment at work.

This really matters in terms of understanding the trade-offs poor women and men often have to make in order to earn a livelihood.

To earn income, people sometimes have to work in environments that are dangerous, violent or humiliating. Work environments that are characterised by what we might call structural violence. This is where the IDM can really help by illuminating across people’s lives the types of violence they experience and how that plays out and makes people more vulnerable in particular ways or in particular aspects of their lives.

Image showing the 15 IDM dimensions: food, water, shelter, health, education, energy/fuel, sanitation, relationships, clothing, violence, family planning, the environment, voice, time use and work.

Thanks Sharon, this has been really insightful. Do you have any final reflections?

Yes! One of the important contributions the IDM makes to understanding poverty and deprivation is its gender sensitivity – it helps us understand how women are experiencing violence, but it also helps understand where men are experiencing violence in different aspects of their lives. That may be interpersonal violence, it may be structural violence.

I spoke earlier about the importance of understanding the drivers of violence against women. The IDM is able to give us a better understanding of the deprivation that both men and women face, the way in which that intersects with their age, where they live, whether or not they have a disability. By generating this information we’ll have a better understand of the context in which violence is occurring.

It may also help us to identify interventions that we haven’t thought about before. The richness of IDM data is really important in helping us to develop interventions but perhaps also to think beyond the box in terms of those interventions. Because the IDM helps to make linkages across individual characteristics and across the social groups it provides a means of knowing who is especially vulnerable and in what ways.

It also helps us to understand how different dimensions of poverty intersect.  Importantly, the IDM helps us to understand how poverty itself is a form of violence.

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