Author Archives: chenreis

Making the International Day to End Violence against Women… all about men?

Stop Violence Today, the 25th of November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Activists have commemorated the day since 1981 and have used it to raise awareness of the extent and nature of violence against women around the world. The day was officially recognized by the UN in 1999 and it also marks the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign which ends on Dec 10th (International Human Rights Day). The theme this year is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!” The 25th of November was chosen because it was on this day in 1960 that three of the four Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, were assassinated on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. This day is specifically focused on highlighting the reality of violence against women and advocating to eliminate this violence rather than focusing on gender-based violence. Its clear from recent news stories that violence against women remains a common phenomenon in schools, workplaces, and homes. Violence against women and girls happens in relatively peaceful settings, as well as during natural disasters and in conflict. According to World Health Organization “35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” The problem is often hidden and unaddressed. Responses to support survivors of violence are insufficient but must be implemented along with prevention as the key to ending violence against women. In this fight to eliminate violence against women, both women and men must be involved. The importance of men and boys as allies in the fight against violence against women is noted in the recently published  Lancet Series on Violence against Women and Girls and at the recent Men Engage Global Symposium. There are both national and international efforts to increase the positive engagement of men and boys in the efforts to end violence against women and girls. HOWEVER, being an ally doesn’t mean shifting the focus away from the problem and instead focusing on men’s role in working to end it.

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White Ribbon walk in Sydney, Australia 2014

In Australia, the 25th of November is now known as “White Ribbon Day” after a male-led campaign focused on men ending violence against women. By changing the name of the day, the campaign has made the day about men and not about women. In particular it has effectively shifted the focus away from women who experience violence and from violence that is often hidden and unacknowledged. By doing so the campaign renders violence and the women it is perpetuated against invisible. On the one day of the year which is set aside to commemorate and honor women and girls who experience violence – those who survive and those who have not, we must keep the focus on women and girls as a reminder of what we are working towards. We can not end violence against women otherwise.

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Does Size Matter? Reflections on the Ending Sexual Violence Summit

WP_20140610_11_12_11_Proby Chen Reis

The recent Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict summit in London was billed as the largest gathering of its kind with 1,700 participants. 129 countries of the over 150  that signed the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict were represented, and almost 80 of these by a government ministers. This indeed is a laudable achievement but does this represent success? Significant high level engagement is critical but only a start.  As a participant in the summit and invited “expert day” speaker, here are 5 areas where I believe the summit was less successful:

1.  Insufficient acknowledgement of root causes

During the official summit sessions, there was very little acknowledgment or focus on the need to work on root causes for prevention of sexual violence in conflict including prevention of conflict and ending militarization. This perhaps not surprising.  Though there was some mention of it, the focus was not on addressing the gender inequality that is the basis for much of sexual violence before, during, and after conflict.

  1. Lack of attention to the most prevalent form of violence against women

While sexual violence committed as a tactic of conflict is indeed horrific and requires concerted global action including by global security and legal institutions, most of the violence against women even in conflict settings is committed by intimate partners. Such violence happens in the home and is beyond the reach or care of the International Criminal Court or Security Council. It is essential to address it before, during, and after conflict and not create false hierarchies of sexual violence.

  1. Missing Voices

Three groups whose voices were notably absent from the mainstream discussions in the summit were grass roots activists working in conflict settings, including Nobel Prize winners, survivors of sexual violence in conflict, and invited youth delegates from around the world.  While there was a whole day dedicated to the youth, most of their public interactions and those of survivors and grass roots activists were either limited to “fringe” events which were held in a cavernous hall one level below the official meetings, or to heavily edited and scripted presentations or videos at the summit’s close.   A new network of sexual violence survivors launched on the margins of the summit aims to end such sidelining of survivor’s voices.

Social scientists were also notably absent from the official summit sessions though some attended and provided their views through blogs and open letters.

  1. Where is the (new) money?

Increased support for survivors was one of the stated aims of the summit. Various governments –very few compared to the numbers in attendance- announced new money for sexual violence in conflict prevention and response including a doubling of funds from the USA, about $5 million from Australia, 6 million GBP from the UK, 2 million Euro from Finland and 1 million Euro from Germany.  The amounts pledged are minuscule when compared to the scope of issue and the needs of the survivors and those who work to support them. 5 million dollars or 6 million GBP seems a lot of money, but rebuilding the health, legal and other systems in war affected countries takes much more money and decades of investment. The costs of caring for the needs of survivors through stop-gap humanitarian action are also significant.

  1. Elephants in the summit

In addition to conflict countries, Governments of donor countries that are documented violators of human rights including countries with legacies of using sexual violence in conflict and mistreating those escaping such abuses participated in the Summit. They were praised for their financial and political commitments to end sexual violence in conflict without any acknowledgement by the governments or the Summit hosts of the hypocrisy.

As Foreign Secretary William Hague noted in his closing remarks, the summit may in future be seen as the tipping point for ending sexual violence in conflict. That won’t happen without concrete commitments with targets and timelines. It also won’t happen unless those most affected by sexual violence in conflict – the survivors-  are recognized as a key part of the response to sexual violence in conflict and more generally as contributors to ending conflict. This has already been articulated in UN Security Council Resolutions relating to Women Peace & Security starting with UNSCR 1325 in 2000 as well as in the new CEDAW General Recommendation 30 on women, peace and security. Vague conclusions such as those included in the official summit summary or the summit’s Statement of Action will not lead to change. Follow-up by the UK Government and by those of us who care about the issue is essential.

The official Summit hashtag was #TimeToAct. For most countries in attendance that time has apparently not yet come.  We must hold our countries and those that participated in this historic summit or signed the Declaration of Commitment accountable and tell them words are not enough,

Policymakers, we need you! ….to pay attention to the evidence.

by Chen Reis

Last week Nicholas Kristof*, the popular NYT columnist, created a storm on twitter and facebook with his column “Professors, We Need You! “ which, among other points, decried the irrelevance of much social science research to policy-making. There have been a number of responses from academics on Twitter, Facebook, and in blogs with many pointing out that they and a significant number of their colleagues are actively working to produce policy relevant research.

Kristof makes some valid points about the obscurity of much social science research and the inaccessibility of the jargon. But he does not mention an important reality:  that even relevant, good quality, and well communicated research often fails to have much impact on public dialog and policy.  Some of the challenges may be inherent to the nature of policy-making itself, but the discrepancy is often seen when research findings do not conform to preconceived notions or agenda of  policymakers. When research demonstrates that pre-existing ’solutions’ are not applicable, it is likely to be ignored as well. This too is true both in the US national system and internationally.  For example, even though  the data suggest that most of the gender-based violence even in humanitarian settings is perpetrated by intimate partners, most of the focus in processes aimed at ending impunity and preventing violence remains on combatant perpetrated sexual violence.

Even in areas for which there is more of an evidence base, it is not clear how and whether the evidence is used. ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, is working to identify the quality and use of evidence available for the humanitarian sector.

The problem is not only that existing evidence is often ignored, but also that there is also little recognition or mention of the need for data on what works, even in key high level statements and commitments. The lack of evidence about what works speaks to not only the complexity of research in crisis settings but also to the lack of resources available for robust program monitoring and evaluation.  When it comes to prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict, and to evaluation of humanitarian programming in general, it is only fairly recently that there has been a move to identify  evidence of what works. Humanitarian non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are working with academic institutions to evaluate interventions for sexual violence in humanitarian settings. There are also initiatives to support the generation of evidence for action, such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative of the ELRHA.

It will be interesting to see whether this push for evidence-based action is reflected in the UK hosted Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict scheduled for this June.  I hope that support for building the evidence base and for using the evidence to inform policy and programming plays a greater and more integrated part of the global efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in humanitarian settings.

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* Kristof’s own work and actions related to sexual violence have been critiqued  as uninformed /naïve and potentially harmful.

16 Days: Rogue Stats

by Chen Reis

As someone who works in the field of prevention of and response to sexual violence, I use data to advocate for more attention, more action, more resources and am always on the lookout for statistics that are both persuasive and based on sound methodology.  Every year, advocates and activists around the world time the release of fact sheets, infographics, and reports on violence against women to coincide with the 16 Days of Action. Unfortunately, every year, many of these repeat the following INCORRECT factoid about the impact of violence against women.  “Violence against women causes more death and disability among women aged 15-44 worldwide than cancer, war, malaria and traffic accidents combined.” This factioid, or some version of it, has been repeated in multiple reports including by  influential think-tanks,  in fact sheets and briefing papers produced for the UN  and popular campaigns  and even included in articles by magazines  notorious for rigorous fact checking.

This statement has often been wrongly attributed to the World Health Organization (WHO). When I worked for WHO, we would often send out corrections to those using this factoid, to indicate that it was wrong and that its source is not the WHO and yet the factoid persists. Is this a function of our Wikipedia world where we believe what we read without digging deeper to identify the primary source? Or is it simply that something repeated often enough as truth acquires that reputation?

More importantly, where did this factoid come from?  It likely first appeared in a March 1998 briefing by the Panos Institute. My WHO colleagues and I thought it was probably based on an inaccurate reading of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report published in 1996 or the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) in 1993, which includes the GBD data for 1990.  More recently I did a little more digging and I think it is based on a table (table 5) included in a discussion paper “Violence against Women: The Hidden Health Burden” authored by Lori Heise, Jaqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germain for the World Bank in 1994. This paper extrapolates from and builds upon the analysis for the WDR 1993 and estimates that globally among women 15-44, 9.5 million Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) were lost to domestic violence & rape, as compared to 9.0 million for all cancers, 4.2 million for motor vehicle accidents, 2.7 million  for war, and 2.3 million for malaria.  The paper includes an appendix which clarifies the author’s approach to estimating the percentage of DALYs lost to women age 15 to 44 due to conditions that are attributable to domestic violence and rape. The exact methods for estimating these percentages are not specified in the paper but the authors indicate they are on file with World Bank staff.

20 years on, we now have a refined GBD methodology and more recent data from the GBD project, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the 2010 GBD data which are searchable online. In the 2010 report, intimate partner violence (IPV) is included as a risk factor (there are no specific data for rape). The current GBD estimates are that globally about 16.8 million lost DALYs are attributable to IPV as a risk factor for women for all ages.  For women of all ages, 37.8 million DALYs are attributable to Malaria, 80.6 million to cancer, and 20.9 million to transport injuries.

The 2010 GBD estimates are just one source of recent and reliable data on VAW. In 2013 there have been 2 major studies published on VAW. The first, a  report released earlier this year by WHO, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council ,found that  one out of every three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual  violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Other key facts from the study: 30% of women worldwide experience violence perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends or other intimate partners and up to 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. A report released by Partners for Prevention earlier this year provided important multi-country comparative data for the Asia- Pacific region on men’s perpetration of violence against women.  We should be using these more recent data as the basis of our advocacy and awareness-raising.

Opponents of work on violence against women accuse anti-VAW activists of spreading misleading and exaggerated information. There are numerous websites aimed at challenging our work to prevent and respond to VAW. One of their key tactics is to highlight erroneous data used by anti-VAW advocates.  When we use data irresponsibly, we provide fodder for those seeking to undermine our work. As consumers and producers of information we have a duty to be responsible. We must examine the primary sources of the statistics we cite and make sure that we are using the most recent and accurate data available.