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Researchers seek to ensure safety of women in studies of gender-based violence

Washington, D.C., Dec. 6, 2011 (PAHO/WHO) – Research on violence against women has generated a growing body of data over the past two decades, providing valuable evidence for policymakers, planners, and advocates to address this crucial public health problem.

 

 

In the process, however, some women have become victims of violence as a result of their participation in such studies, highlighting the urgent need to protect women while carrying out research, experts said today during a panel discussion on research about gender-based violence at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).

“Research on violence against women raises important ethical and methodological challenges in addition to those posed by any research,” said PAHO/WHO Deputy Director Dr. Jon K. Andrus. “The nature of the topic means that issues of safety, confidentiality and interviewer skill and training are even more important than for other areas of research. It is not an exaggeration to say that the physical safety and psychological well-being of both the respondents and the research team can be put in jeopardy if adequate precautions are not taken.”

Research on violence against women has increased considerably in the past two decades, the panelists noted. As recently as the early 1990s, only a few dozen studies had been published on gender-based violence in different countries.

“We knew it was a serious problem, but we didn’t have much information about how widespread it was, we didn’t have data across countries, and we didn’t have information on its impact on children and families or its economic costs,” said Mary Ellsberg, Vice President of Research and Programs at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

The growing body of research produced since then has produced two “big truths,” said Ellsberg. The first is that research on violence against women has inherent risks. “It’s a life-or-death issue for many women involved in this research, not only subjects but researchers themselves.” This means researchers must be careful to ensure women “complete privacy” when conducting interviews, they must conceal the purpose of the interviews from others in the family and community, and they should even carry “dummy questionnaires” to prevent others from learning that their interviews are designed to investigate violence against women, said Ellsberg.

The second “big truth” is that “researching violence against women can be an incredible force for change. Shedding light on something that has been hidden from view for years. Bringing these stories to light has changed laws and people’s lives and has been deeply empowering for those who carryout or participate in this research,” said Ellsberg.

Research on violence against women has helped increase awareness of its significant health, social, and economic costs and has facilitated advocacy, policymaking, and programs aimed at addressing the problem.

“What we know about the prevalence of violence and its negative consequences on health comes from data collection efforts,” said Robert Clay, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “Three decades of work on gender-based violence have put the issue on the global radar screen. And data have been at the core of successful advocacy efforts, policy changes, and programmatic interventions to prevent and respond to violence.”

Much of this data has been generated by USAID’s Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which collect population, health, HIV, and nutrition data in over 90 countries, and by the International Reproductive Health Surveys (RHS) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As part of these surveys, gender- and family-based violence data have been or are being collected in nearly 70 countries.

Analyses of data from these surveys show that women who experience violence have higher fertility rates, increased likelihood of unwanted pregnancies, less access to contraception, and less access to prenatal and delivery care. The studies have also shown that violence against women is a risk factor for HIV and that men who are physically and sexually violent are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors for HIV.

Data from these studies have been critical to efforts such as the development of new legislation in Uganda to protect women from domestic violence and to promote gender equality in the home. In Kenya, similar data helped advocates work with Parliament to create laws that criminalize forced sex in marriage.

Based on DHS and RHS surveys, PAHO and the CDC are currently collaborating on an analysis of risk factors, consequences and attitudes related to violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean. The preliminary results, which have not yet been published, include the following:

The proportion of women who have been beaten or otherwise physically abused by their partners at some point in their lives varies from 13 percent in Haiti to more than half in Bolivia.

The proportion of women who have experienced violence and suffered minor or severe injuries as a result ranges from 41 percent in Honduras to 82 percent in Paraguay.

The prevalence of violence is higher among women who report that their own mothers or stepmothers were beaten than among other women.  

Alessandra Guedes, PAHO Regional Advisor on Intra-Family Violence and an investigator in the PAHO/CDC study, said that surveys very likely underreport levels of violence against women due to a number of factors, including fear on the part of subjects, the generality of survey questions, and the tendency in surveys to ask only about women’s most recent partners.

Dr. Sidney Ruth Schuler, Senior Advisor for Research and Gender at FHI360, cited research in Bangladesh on attitudes about violence against women that  show that, in some cases, women may be more accepting of such violence than men. She added that evidence from Bangladesh suggests that wife beating has declined in that country due to the passage of a national law against gender-based violence, efforts by NGOs to help enforce the new law, and overall increases in women’s income and status within the family.

Diana Arango, Inter-agency Global Project Coordinator for the Gender-based Violence Information Management System (GBVIMS), said that in addition to protecting the physical safety of women subjects, it is also important to ensure their privacy and informed consent when carrying out research or when sharing data on violence against women. She noted that data from GBVIMS is anonymous and only shared with full client consent.

Dr. Sunita Kishor, Senior Gender Advisor for the DHS program at ICF International, urged researchers who work with victims of gender-based violence to ask themselves how the data they produce will eventually help women like their subjects.

“No matter what you do, you are always putting that person at some level of risk. Don’t put people at risk when you do not intend to use your data in some way to help them. This is a core ethical matter.”

LINKS

PAHO Injuries and Violence Prevention Program

Jerry Rivera, PAHO Champion of Health, 2011 PSA

WHO Multi-country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Volence against Women  

 
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