What doesn’t get counted doesn’t count

Diana is a One Young World Ambassador from Bulgaria who is passionate about ending gender based violence. She has led two collaborative initiatives carried in support of the One Billion Rising campaign, one in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2014 and the other in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2013. Diana has also worked as consultant to the UN.

You can follow her @dialeidoscope 

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The problem with data on domestic violence

There is a growing consensus among world governments and municipal leaders that domestic violence is an urgent problem with far reaching consequences. Nevertheless, there is little consensus about what works to prevent domestic violence and deal with it effectively.

Practitioners recommend a holistic approach where education, information, financial and psychosocial support for victims and perpetrators, and appropriate social and criminal sanctions on domestic violence, all play a part. This ideal framework requires a collaborative approach from service providers, law enforcement, government and private support systems like educational and religious institutions. But resources are scarce so choices have to be made. Where should we focus our limited funds?

These choices can only be made with a nuanced understanding of the context of domestic violence, which varies from one community to another. Without essential information, policy choices are like rolling the dice and hoping for the best. What doesn’t get counted, doesn’t count.

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Why we need accurate data collection

Domestic violence prevention is often sidelined because it has been under-documented, despite mounting evidence that it has direct impacts on lost productivity to individuals and families and is also a predictor of destructive behavior with wider effects for society. A study examining 110 mass shootings in the United States in 2009-2014 discovered that more than half of all perpetrators targeted intimate partners or family members as well as others. It is just one example of the extent to which better prevention and response to domestic violence could contribute to sustaining more peaceful societies.

At the local level, it is challenging to conduct compelling awareness campaigns and advocacy work without a thorough knowledge of the scope of the problem. One of the first questions you will hear asked in informal discussions and media coverage is: “Well, what are the numbers on domestic violence here?” When the local context is missing, these simple questions cannot be answered.

Only rough figures for callers to national hotlines for children affected by violence are available. This is insufficient to indicate trends in the success of connecting victims to services. Even where data can be made readily available, very little context is given when reporting crimes. The umbrella term ‘domestic violence’ is rarely used.

In Bulgaria, the only available information on incidence of domestic violence is from a 2012 survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights According to this research 23% of women in Bulgaria have suffered intimate partner violence, this is nearly equal to the average for Europe, slightly above that for North America, and well below regional averages for other parts of the world as assessed by a comparative 2014 study by the World Bank.

The lack of resources and lack of initiative by the Bulgarian government to meet European standards makes it much harder to understand and address domestic violence.

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Alternative solutions

Frustrated with being left by government to carry the burden of analysis as well as service provision, Women’s Aid, Nia Project and the law firm Freshfields are taking the game to the next level in the United Kingdom. The Femicide Census launched in February 2015. This database tracks all cases of women murdered by men. The Femicide Census aims to connect statistics to background stories and will rely on filing large quantities of public information requests every six months to capture the data needed, with the explicit goal of catalyzing a shift in the way the UK Home Office collects and uses this type of information.

Canada has provided a great example for the rest of the world. For 17 years, the government’s statistics office has released annual data on family violence and focused its 2013 study on intimate partner violence reported to the police. The study clearly illuminates a difference in the rates of family violence between genders. Even more interestingly, the study highlights that the gender discrepancy in domestic violence victimization rate is pronounced between ages 15 and 45. At ages below 10 and above 55, family violence is reported to affect males and females at similar rates.

“Don’t just demand that the government does things. Demand that it does them right. These things have to be woman-centered,” as Jill Radford, co-editor of Femicide: The Politics of Women Killing (1992), insists in an interview at the Femicide Census launch event.

We must indeed insist that our respective governments make a real effort to address the knowledge gap on domestic violence. Meanwhile, let’s hope that at the upcoming meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and side events the lack of established practices of data collection on domestic violence will be addressed.