Fighting violence against women with better data in the Asia-Pacific

An acid attack survivor (Credit: Zoriah / Flickr)

One in three women worldwide will experience violence, nearly half the time from someone they know. In the last few years, violence against women has taken some particularly vicious forms in Asia and the Pacific, with headlines including acid attacks, gang rapes and honor killings.

Today is a day set aside by the United Nations to draw attention to this social pandemic – International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Recently, a new program has been launched to fight gender-based violence by strengthening the region’s capacity to collect better data, leading to better policy and protections.

Started in August by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Asia-Pacific Regional Office and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the three-year initiative is called kNOwVAWdata.

“In order to address the global pandemic of violence against women we need to understand it across all its aspects,” Yoriko Yasukawa, UNFPA Asia-Pacific regional director, said in a press release. “In other words, we need to ‘know violence against women data to end violence against women.’ ”

The stunning statistic that one third of all women worldwide report experiencing physical or sexual violence in their lifetime comes from a 2013 World Health Organization study. Most often, the study showed, the perpetrator is an intimate partner, usually the woman’s husband. In Asia and the Pacific, the rates of prevalence vary by country, spanning anywhere from 15 percent to 68 percent.

(Credit: kNOwVAWdata / UNFPA)

(Credit: kNOwVAWdata / UNFPA)

“Violence against women exists in every single country in the world regardless of development status, and developing countries in particular often lack good, reliable prevalence data,” Ingrid Fitzgerald, UNFPA Asia-Pacific regional gender adviser, said in an interview with Humanosphere.

But quality data reveals the extent of the problem as well as the “devastating” impact, Australia’s ambassador to Thailand Paul Robilliard said in a press release. “This helps us spur action to find causes and develop solutions.”

Australia has been working with UNFPA to collect prevalence studies in Asia and the Pacific for more than 10 years, making the region a good starting point for kNOwVAWdata. Still, nine of the 37 countries in the region – and many globally – have never done a national survey as of August. Only six have only done more than one.

“It’s about supporting countries to do these surveys, to do them well. It’s about reporting on the data both at the national and regional level. And it’s about telling the story of what it’s like to do violence research,” Fitzgerald said, because violence against women surveys are unique.

For many of these women, the survey is the first time they have ever shared their experiences. Many are afraid of more violence if their abuser finds out, of not being taken seriously, of the social stigma or even of being blamed. Interviewers must undergo extensive training to handle the situation with sensitivity.

“It’s not just enough that they understand how to administer a questionnaire. They have to understand that the woman may become distressed, that they might become distressed, that they will not be able to offer counseling because they’re not trained,” Fitzgerald said. Instead of counsel, interviewers are trained to give referrals.

Confidentiality is another priority in these surveys, which never use the word ‘violence’ and are often simply called ‘health surveys.’ Usually surveys are conducted in a woman’s home or a neutral venue such as a health clinic. But if someone else overhears a woman sharing experiences of violence, the woman and the interviewer could both be at risk.

Despite all efforts to improve data collection, violence surveys still underestimate the true number of victims, because “you never reach the women who are most severely affected,” according to Fitzgerald. “The women who are killed, the women who are hospitalized, the women who are not allowed to answer the door – you never reach those women, so these surveys underestimate prevalence, but they’re the best that we have at the moment.”

Nevertheless, existing data are already making a positive difference, and kNOwVAWdata aims to build on those successes.

In countries where surveys had not yet been conducted, researchers found that violence against women was not a public policy issue because most people were ignorant of its prevalence, thinking that it only happens among the poor or under the influence of drugs and alcohol, for example.

But once a survey had been done, the data clearly showed that gender-based violence is a pervasive problem irrespective of social class or education.

The surveys have also been transformative for the interviewers, who often feel “quite powerless,” according to Fitzgerald, because they’re not trained to help the women directly as counselors.

“But over time they actually start to realize that there’s a real dignity to listening to women’s stories, because often the interviewer is the only person they’ve ever told,” she said.

The recent adoption of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals has placed a renewed focus on violence, with two indicators falling under both Goal 5 of gender equality and Goal 16 of peace and justice.

“Member states understood that you not going to achieve sustainable development when some people live in fear in their own homes,” said Fitzgerald.

Every year, the U.N. does a campaign called 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This year kNOwVAWdata will publish 16 days of data starting today – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women – until Dec. 10, Human Rights Day.

“We want people everywhere to live lives of dignity and choice and voice,” said Fitzgerald. “And when you have one in three women worldwide experiencing violence, you can’t achieve those things.”

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.