• The prevalence of violence against women, as with many other areas of life, has been affected by COVID-19's impact on researchers' ability to gather data.
  • Researchers involved in the United Nations Population Fund's kNOwVAWdata initiative have continued to collect this data across the APAC region in a safe and reliable way during pandemic-era lockdowns.
  • This information is vital for providing governments with irrefutable evidence that action is needed on the issue of violence against women.

When COVID-19 swept across the world in early 2020, countries fell like dominoes into states of lockdown. In this environment, concern grew that violence against women perpetrated within their own families – mostly by husbands or intimate partners – would escalate. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projected that COVID-19 would cut global progress towards ending gender-based violence within this decade by at least one-third.

Efforts to collect this data have continued, however. This information is key to shedding light on the fact that violence against women is a critical global public health emergency that requires ongoing attention.

Data to measure violence against women

Over the years, governments and development partners have realized the impact of violence against women on individual health, family stability, and society as a whole. The UN Sustainable Development Goals also include hard targets on elimination of all forms of violence against women and call for collection of data to show advances towards this. Countries need robust data to understand the extent and dimensions of this issue, and to measure progress towards addressing it.

In the "big data" era, collecting information has never been easier. Researchers can gather huge amounts of data passively, with digital tools such as social media and mobile technology providing unprecedented reach. These tools are inadequate to measure the prevalence of violence against women, however, while administrative data such as police, hospital or helpline records only reveal part of the problem. Population-based surveys can go much further in painting a more accurate picture. It was out of this realization that the kNOwVAWdata initiative was born to help collect and understand data on violence against women (VAW).

Reliable, comparable data on violence against women

The kNOwVAWdata initiative was launched in 2016 by UNFPA’s Asia-Pacific Regional Office supported by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It enables individuals, research teams and countries to collect reliable, comparable prevalence data in a way that protects and empowers both those collecting the data and the women who share their stories and experiences. The initiative is built on existing gold standard practice methods and tools.

Some violence against women is rooted in social norms around discipline; some is an expression of an ownership ideology towards women and girls. The kNOwVAWdata surveys use in-depth, mixed-methods research that both quantifies prevalence and yields qualitative data to tell women’s individual stories. This helps to lift the veil and reveal the origins and dimensions of different types of violence against women.

Map of violence against women prevalence in Asia-Pacific region, 2020
Percentages of women who experience intimate partner violence in countries across Asia-Pacific.
Image: UNFPA, July 2020

Violence against women survey: a transformative experience

Conducting a VAW survey can be an experience that is both heart-rending and uplifting in equal measure. This was the case in Mongolia, for example, where the kNOwVAWdata team worked with the National Statistics Office to design and implement the country’s first national VAW survey in 2017. That summer, 15 teams fanned out across all 21 of Mongolia’s provinces, overcoming logistical challenges, a forbidding landscape and harsh weather conditions to interview more than 7,300 women.

"Sometimes when the women were afraid I told them about my own story and they were able to open up to me."

—Badmaa, a kNOwVAWdata researcher in Mongolia

One of these interviewers, Badmaa, explains the sense of mission and the strong empathy researchers everywhere take with them to the field. “I wanted to help women like me who have experienced violence,” she says. “I could see my own life flash before my eyes when I listened to them. Sometimes when the women were afraid I told them about my own story and they were able to open up to me.”

Indeed, government officials can be sceptical that women would be willing to answer such personal and sensitive questions, which can seem in conflict with cultural norms, but the reality is quite different. “In our area we collected data from around 100 households, and not a single one refused to provide us with answers,” said Thanabalasingham, one of the interviewers for the Sri Lanka survey, which was carried out with support from the Government of Canada.

Part of this is down to the deep experience that has shaped the structure of the survey. “The methodology, the questionnaire itself – how it moves from the community, to (the respondent’s) relationships, to her health outcomes, the whole flow of it – without even using the word violence; it’s beautifully crafted,” says Sharika Cooray, National Programme and Women's Rights and Gender Policy Analyst at UNFPA Sri Lanka.

Irrefutable data on violence against women that calls for action

The kNOwVAWdata initiative has so far provided direct technical guidance to 15 countries in Asia-Pacific resulting in nine published survey reports. It has advised a further 13 countries, including providing guidance on data activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Time and again these surveys have provided irrefutable evidence that action is needed. The Mongolia survey, for example, revealed that 31% of women surveyed reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives; 43% were injured as a result and 27% had never told anyone about the abuse before the interview. For 13% of the women, the abuse had happened within the past 12 months.

The government used the survey findings to strategically determine the location of 17 new one-stop crisis centres for women experiencing violence. This turned out to be a very timely development when demand for services almost doubled in 2020 versus 2019, as COVID-19 took hold nationwide.

A new era of violence against women data collection

The pandemic threw the kNOwVAWdata team numerous curveballs, just like everyone else. On-the-ground country technical support and data collection activities were suspended, while demand for data on VAW prevalence mushroomed.

Dr Henriette Jansen is a globally renowned expert on VAW data and a former UNFPA technical adviser who helped develop the methodology for a landmark 2015 World Health Organization study on violence against women. She pioneered the kNOwVAWdata initiative at UNFPA's Asia-Pacific Regional Office. During the pandemic lockdowns, Jansen and colleagues at UNFPA, WHO and UN Women produced a decision tree to encourage VAW data collectors to really think about why they want to collect data at this time and what is the right methodology to follow.

Jansen urges researchers to better understand what data can and cannot reveal, and to analyze existing data sources whenever possible. She encourages the use of mixed quantitative and qualitative methods to inform truly context-specific policies and programme responses. And, most importantly, Jansen adds: “Always remember to prioritize women's safety over data collection.”