15 март 2015 г.

What isn’t counted doesn’t count: the case for a data revolution in domestic violence prevention and response

[full text of draft for a One Young World blog]

There is a growing consensus among world governments and municipal leaders that domestic violence is an urgent problem with far reaching consequences. Although it’s only recognition and not the problem that is new, there is little consensus on what works to prevent domestic violence and address its occurrence.

With good reason. Practitioners insist on a holistic approach in which education, information and financial and psychosocial support for victims and perpetrators, and appropriate social and criminal sanctions on domestic violence, all play a part. This ideal tableau implies service providers, law enforcement, and government and private support systems, like educational and religious institutions, working in concert. A pretty tall order for stretched municipal budgets and specialized providers to take on. So choices have to be made: which areas should limited funds be focused on to get the most in preventing domestic violence and serving the interests of the people and families it affects?

Members of the Bulgarian Alliance for protection from gender-based violence demand ratification of the Istanbul Convention in November 2013
Choices on what domestic violence prevention activities to prioritize and how to improve the reach and effectiveness of support services are better made with a nuanced understanding of the context of domestic violence, which can vary from one community to another.

Without detailed disaggregated information on the incidence of domestic violence across particular community contexts, policy and expenditure choices are little better than rolling a pair of dice. Because what doesn’t get counted, doesn’t count. It is all that much easier to make only vague and hollow policy ‘commitments’ when the information base for sound planning is missing.

In discussions of the post-2015 sustainable development goals and the role of gender, a major theme is getting the right indicators and fomenting a data revolution. However, а forecast assessment of quantifiable returns to the gamut of potential gender-related targets by Irma Clots Figueras of the Copenhagen Consensus assesses those related to reducing gender-based violence to come at high costs and have questionable effectiveness: “Domestic violence is widespread in all regions, but especially high in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia… [but] data from different countries may therefore not be directly comparable. … Benefits [of prevention] are more difficult to quantify, but are physical, psychological and economic (lifetime income can be reduced).” The prioritization of initiatives to prevent domestic violence thus suffers from the issue’s very legacy of being under-measured and from its complexity.

This sidelining of domestic violence prevention because it has been under-documented continues despite mounting evidence that domestic violence not only has direct impacts in lost productivity to individuals and families but may be a predictor of destructive behavior with greater reach. 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. The study was conducted by an organization advocating tougher gun regulation, it took its place in the domestic violence discourse via a New York Times op-ed by field experts Pamela Shiffman and Salamishah Tillet and 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 just simply challenging to conduct compelling awareness campaigns and advocacy work without a thorough knowledge of the scope of the problem. One of the first questions people pose in informal discussions and media coverage is: “Well, what are the numbers on domestic violence, here?” The local context is missing, and this is a question that cannot be answered at present, in many places.

Only very aggregate figures for callers to the national hotline for children affected by violence are available, insufficient to indicate trends in the success of connecting victims to services. Even where data can more easily be made useful, in the incomplete proportion of cases that reach the justice system, it is not. The National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria makes available only summary statistics on annual basis per Article of the criminal law (type of crime, such as homicide, bodily injury, abduction, etc.). Figures cover crimes prosecuted and are disaggregated by perpetrator gender, without reference to victims’ gender. Admittedly, there are practical limitations to collecting data in a usable manner: chief among these is inability to cross reference offences prosecuted under the various articles of law with the umbrella category of domestic violence. The context is missing. And while this ambiguity can lead to a discourse that emphasizes more humanized narratives, the overall sense is one of uncertainty as to whether this is really a big issue.

Missing the context is not a challenge unique to Bulgaria, and is in fact the subject of an entire chapter of the Council of Europe Convention on Combatting Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) which aims to build comprehensive and coherent national legal and policy provisions for the prevention and response to domestic violence. Chapter II requires State Parties to “collect disaggregated relevant statistical data at regular intervals on cases of all forms of violence covered [and] support research in the field … to study its root causes and effects, incidences and conviction rates, as well as the efficacy of measures taken to implement this Convention.” Only 16 countries, a third of the Council of Europe’s membership, have ratified the convention so far - Bulgaria is not one of them.

At present the only available information on incidence of domestic violence is from the 2012 survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights: 23% of women in Bulgaria have suffered intimate partner violence, a proportion 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.

 In its 2011 independent assessment on the implementation of the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence which entered into force in 2009, a regional NGO Center in Razgrad, Bulgaria concludes: “activities are initiated and supported solely by the non-governmental sector working on project principles while the government makes no commitment and does not cooperate to make sustainable the existing, validated and effective practices, which is at odds with national legislation as well as several international regimes Bulgaria is party to.” The 2013 National Action Plan on the prevention and response to domestic violence included producing a proposal for an integrated information system on domestic violence, to be financed by the Council of Europe through EEAS/Norway grants focused on strengthening the justice sector through reforms and combating violence against women. So far the “BG12: Domestic Violence and Gender-Based Violence” programme has funded service provision and communications campaigns, concurrently with a project to align the national legal framework with Council of Europe standards. At an undetermined point in the future, 200,000 Euros (10% of total programme funds) will be available for projects to gather data and information on gender based violence.

Somehow, the available resources and the total lack of initiative by the Bulgarian government to meet European actors and the NGO sector partway do not seem equal to the task of understanding domestic violence, let alone addressing it.


Frustrated with being left by government to carry the burden of analysis as well as service provision, Women’s Aid, Nia Project and the legal firm Freshfields are taking the game to the next level in the United Kingdom. The Femicide Census launched in February 2015: a database that 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’s Home Office collects and uses this type of information.

There are good practice and leadership examples of how to do that. Take Canada: 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, by analyzing age-disaggregated information, the study highlights that the gender discrepancy in domestic violence victimization rate is pronounced between ages 15 and 45: the category typically equated with reproductive age in women. At ages below 10 and above 55, family violence is reported to affect males and females at similar rates. So there is something about the age in which women are in the conventionally understood reproductive age that places them at uniquely high risk.

“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. Making disaggregated data available is essential to a more nuanced understanding of the socio-economic drivers of domestic violence, and from there prioritizing the types of policies that can effectively prevent it.


We must indeed insist with our respective governments to 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, and not taken as an argument to discount the importance of this issue for societies’ wellbeing and development.