Gender-based Violence is Notoriously Hard to Address – But Accurate Data Helps
Futures Without Violence’s Leila Milani (left) and Ruxana Jina, Director of the Data Impact Programme at Vital Strategies.

It took years – and much data-crunching – before the US government was persuaded that measuring women’s security is an important way to assess the security of where she lives – her city, state and country.

Most governments lack the data to make this calculation. Gender-based violence (GBV) is notoriously under-reported, and officials often have little idea about the extent or nature of GBV in their countries. 

Yet one-in-three women will experience physical or sexual in their lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

While GBV can involve physical, sexual and psychological abuse by intimate partners and non-partners, as well as the sexual abuse of girls and trafficking of women for sex, its most common form is the abuse of women by intimate male partners, according to Fatima Marinho, Principal Technical Advisor at Vital Strategies.

A global health organisation that helps governments to strengthen their public health systems, Vital Strategies asserts that investment in data is “a missing component of interventions to end gender-based violence”.

“Most of the women who experience gender-based violence don’t experience [swift justice],” says Ruxana Jina, Director of the Data Impact Programme at Vital Strategies.

“It’s often intimate partners. It’s often at home. It’s often underreported, and it’s only through the data that we get the true story. Data unmasks the truth. It tells us the true story around the true burden.” 

Jina has worked to unmask GBV and femicide in a range of countries including India and South Africa, and some of the findings have been jarring.

Mumbai’s high burden of homicide and suicide

An autopsy-based analysis of the bodies of 1,467 Mumbai women, girls and non-binary people found that 12,3% of the dead – 181 women – had an “underlying history or indication of GBV”. This was deduced from the autopsy reports themselves, victims’ statements (if they were still alive when they reached the hospital), police reports and relatives.

Two-thirds of victims were married and the perpetrators were either husbands or intimate partners (61%) or family members (39%).

An extraordinarily high percentage of those 181 people with a history of violence died from suicide (86), with 10 dying from homicide and the remainder dying from accidents.

However, the study highlighted critical data gaps, such as the absence of a standardized data collection tool with respect to GBV in autopsies, which means that socio-demographic factors for the victim were missing. 

Another Mumbai-based data project involved monitoring and evaluating 12 hospital-based Dilaasa Centres, one-stop crisis centres that the city’s public health department has set up to provide medical services for GBV survivors and link them to the police and social services.

“The data wasn’t standardised,” Jina told a VitalTalks panel in New York last week.

The centres also didn’t measure outcomes, such as whether the women accessing services were having better health outcomes or better social protection, and whether more cases were being prosecuted. 

But working with government officials and people working in the centres, a Vital Strategies team was able to help to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework with standardised indicators.

“That’s been very important because it not only helps the government officials in Mumbai to ensure that the services that they offering are of high quality, it’s actually addressing the needs of the woman,” said Jina.

“These types of data on one-stop centres can help provide information on the effectiveness of the service delivery model that can help inform global recommendations and guide other countries decide on the organization of their services.”

Identifying vulnerable women in Brazil

Márcia Lima, National Secretary of Policies for Affirmative Action and Overcoming Racism in the Ministry of Racial Equality in Brazil.

Márcia Lima is the National Secretary of Policies for Affirmative Action and Overcoming Racism in the Ministry of Racial Equality in Brazil.

“It’s impossible to think about public policies without evidence,” said Lima. “Public policy based on evidence is the most effective way to improve social problems.”

However, Lima said that it was very hard to collect accurate GBV data because of “a culture of silence across all groups”.

In 2022, Vital Strategies developed an analytical method to estimate the burden of GBV in Brazil, finding that almost one-in-five women over 18 had experienced violence, while the same ratio of school girls had been abused.

The data also enabled researchers to develop a profile of who was most vulnerable to GBV. Race (black and brown women), age (between 14 and 39) and partners’ use of alcohol were key risk factors, said Marinho.

A sub-national data collection project shed more light on racial disparities, finding that black women are more likely than white women to be subjected to sexual and physical violence and that homicide rates for black and brown women have worsened but improved for white women.

“We can’t face GBV without addressing racism,” Lima told VitalTalks.

Data collection in a Brazilian city, Goiania, found that women who had been assisted for GBV were three times more likely to die by suicide. 

“We also analysed the public health data to identify missed opportunities for health services in addressing violence and predictors of femicide and all in all types of domestic violence,” said Marinho.

Fatima Marinho, Principal Technical Advisor at Vital Strategies

Grabbing the attention of policy-makers

Leila Milani, a Program Director with Futures Without Violence, said that it was important to “grab the attention of those who can make a difference – those who can put the funds into place to support more data to support more programming”.

She credits Dr Valerie Hudson, Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, for ensuring that the US government took the security status of women more seriously.

“She looked at all the data points – 20 years’ worth of data points – that made the case for the link between the security of women and security of states, and for the first time, it got the attention of those who needed to pay attention,” said Milani. 

“She made the point that, where you see inequality and violence against women, that’s a  number one indicator of insecurity.”

On 25 May, the US released the country’s first-ever national plan to end gender-based violence, that Futures Without Violence helped to inform, said Milani.

The plan recognises GBV as “a public safety and public health crisis, affecting urban, suburban, rural, and Tribal communities in the United States” and that it is “experienced by individuals of all backgrounds and can occur across the life course”.

“We’ve had the Violence Against Women Act, which has funded a lot of the shelters and programming and training, but we’ve never had an actual plan. Many countries have already implemented plans, but the US had not stepped up to that obligation,” she added.

“One of its pillars is a commitment to increase the collection of data and research.”

WHO global estimates on gender-based violence, 2022.

Data for the future

“I often think about the data in terms of the root causes,” says Jina. “ Who are the people who are affected? Are there specific risk factors that we could be addressing? How do we then identify the best interventions? It’s one thing saying we have a problem, how are we acting on that problem? Then we need to evaluate that intervention to see if it is actually  making a difference.”

Lima called for “more the participation of civil society to the pressure government to create more and more information. Data is knowledge. Knowledge is power.”

Sharon Kim-Gibbons, Vital’s Vice-president of Public Health Programs, concluded the VitalTalk by asserting that data can play a key role in ending GBV – “but it’s a highly conditional”.

“Is the data complete? Is it accurate? Is it consistent? I think we’d also say that you have to ask the right women the right questions because the risk is not equal,” said Kim-Gibbons.

“We need national country-level surveys but also small qualitative focus groups. Public health is so complex. We all try to be as predictive and analytic as possible, but [understanding] is often so nuanced between cultural and social factors.”

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