Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Data" is the hot topic around violence against women these days

On March 6, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency presented their EU-wide prevalence survey to an audience of an estimated 400 in Brussels, very many of whom represented governments, NGOs, international organisations. I was astonished how many speakers in this well-informed public declared themselves “shocked” by the findings, since the new prevalence figures are not very different from what national surveys have uncovered. Or were they hoping to shock their governments into finally taking the problem seriously?

 Just two weeks later, the European Institute for Gender Equality invited some 50 experts from across the EU to discuss the results of their study on the availability of administrative data on violence against women. Unsurprisingly, since institutions and regulations differ quite a lot among member states, not much of the data is comparable across countries, and of course administrative files only capture violence that is reported to the police, social services, or (much less often) the health care system. As the FRA study showed, less than a third of all victimized women reported even the most serious incident to the police or to some other agency or organization. (A third talked to someone they know, a third had told no-one about it.). 

 What do we need the data for?

The interesting thing would be data that told us what statutory agencies DO about the cases they do hear of, for example, what percentage of cases recorded by the police ever goes to court?
In its “victims rights“ Directive (October 2012), the EU – to my great satisfaction – finally defined a victim as someone who has suffered harm irrespective of whether a perpetrator has been identified, charged or convicted, or of whether she makes a criminal complaint. Finally EU policy steps out of the narrow box in which the right to support and protection depends on criminal proceedings. 

But only one step. The Commission takes care to ask member states to train the providers of specialist support services to encourage and facilitate reporting to the police. Services, it seems, are expected to teach victims to trust the police and the criminal justice system. Indeed, we would all like to live in a world like that, and in many countries, the police are making impressive efforts to be worthy of victims’ trust. But it is the mandate of support services, would it even be ethical of them, to try and convince reluctant women to denounce their husbands or partners to the police? 

In how many states can a rape crisis center honestly assure women that they have nothing to fear from being witness in a rape trial? About a year ago, when a prominent rape case was being dragged through the German media, a former national prosecutor declared, in a talk show, that if his daughter were raped, he would strongly advise her not to go to the police, because the defense would inevitably attack her credibility and her character. Yes, when a woman has decided that she wants redress, wants to see her tormenter prosecuted, support her by all means – but encourage?

Do more data make better policy?

But back to data. There seems to be a notion floating around that the modern state ought to be informed about every case or incident of abuse or hurt. Every victim of violence in close relationships, it is said, ought to be “assessed” to decide if she needs special protection measures. (Why is no-one talking about the perpetrator? Surely it is the person posing a danger who needs to be assessed.). In the same Directive, member states are asked to provide administrative data regularly, systematically, and in comparable frameworks. It’s not easy to see what this has to do with victims’ rights.

Do more data make better policy? How, exactly, does that work? Awareness-raising is likely to increase the proportion of incidents that are reported, poor agency responses are likely to decrease that proportion, but the numbers won’t tell us whether awareness has risen or whether the agency responses have improved or deteriorated. 

I’m finding the “hype” about data, and more data questionable, especially since the data are all being collected from the victims, and that is, we might remind ourselves, a very intrusive process. If my handbag is stolen on the train, of course I go to the police (if only because I need the file number to get all those plastic cards we live with replaced), and their questions center on the perpetrator. I don’t have to answer questions about whether I am feeling depressed or whether I am pregnant. 

Seems to me that any institution that wishes to collect data on people who have done nothing wrong, just had the bad luck to be victimized, should be required to justify specifically why the data are needed. A general claim that data collection is “an essential component of effective policy-making” is too little. Numbers don’t make policy.

Carol Hagemann-White 

1 comment: