Recording the stories of violence against women: difficult but essential

Grace Nicholas

16 Dec, 2016

Development practitioner, Grace Nicholas, argues that this year's 16 Days of Activism has brought global visibility to Violence Against Women (VAW), but now is the opportunity to build solid evidence to outlast the media cycle and galvanise efforts to make progress in preventing VAW.

In 2016, the issue of violence against women (VAW) is as visible as it has ever been. But for the global elimination of VAW to be more than words, we need robust evidence to inform effective programs and hold ourselves to account. This is not an easy task.

There are gaping holes in the information available, from statistics on the number of women globally who are killed through violence to the stories that give us the detail of how, when, where and why violence occurs. It remains difficult to talk about VAW in communities where the local environment can be one of fear or stigma. We need to hear from women and men and we need to support them to talk about their experiences. From the highest level, the world's nations have set a collective agenda to do this.

The United Nations 2030 agenda has set inspiring targets under SDG 5, including the goal to: "Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls". To support this UNWomen launched the USD 65 million "Making Every Woman and Girl Count" program to strengthen countries' ability to measure progress towards SDG 5, including towards the SDG targets on VAW. The project is founded on the recognition that the uncounted does not count and localization and monitoring will be essential to successful outcomes.

But how are we applying this to Australia and our region?

In October, researcher Dr Henriette Jansen addressed a joint workshop between DFAT and the ACFID Gender Equality Community of Practice, describing the efforts of UNFPA to build a stronger picture of VAW prevalence across the Asia-Pacific through its kNOwVAWdata initiative (supported by DFAT). By collecting this data through high-quality surveys over the next 3 years, the initiative aims to develop irrefutable evidence to galvanise efforts and shape targets. It will support local institutions to develop their own capacity to undertake this work.

Many Australian NGOs are also trying to understand more about VAW, and what works to promote stronger outcomes for women and girls. This is where the challenges of collecting intimate stories come to the fore. Violence against women is not something that naturally comes up in conversation, after all. When asked generally what challenges they experience, women do not tend to volunteer that they are beaten or that their sister was killed for honour.

Encouraging even vocal women to talk about this most personal of issues is difficult for evaluators, community facilitators and group coordinators. There are ethical questions on what is appropriate to ask and how to ask it, concerns about re-traumatisation of survivors, security, and a lack of protection services for the referral of reported cases. There is often a lack of female staff available to coordinate sensitive discussions, a lack of budget or time for training, and a lack of expertise in gender equality and VAW programming.

There is a long way to go, but organizations with a stated commitment to women's rights and gender equality like ActionAid, IWDA and CARE are doing important work to contribute to knowledge through evaluations and research directly with women and men in communities where they work. Ground-breaking work in communities here in Australia, such as the VAW prevention framework "Change the story" developed by OurWatch, VicHealth and ANROWs is globally recognized and should also be explored for its potential to strengthen international programming.

The 2030 Agenda is in place and the Australian Government has a strong commitment to gender equality and evidence-based approaches. Now is our opportunity to build the sector's knowledge of VAW in the communities where we work. This year's 16 Days of Activism orange theme has brought global visibility to VAW, but detailed insights and evidence can provide us with the ability to make the great strides we want to prevent VAW.

To find more good resources visit the kNOvawDATA site. PATH and World Health Organisation (WHO) also developed the guide for VAW researchers which is a useful tool.

  • Grace Nicholas
    Grace Nicholas

    Consultant, Gender Equality and Social Impact


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