Measuring gender violence is a must

Date: January 1, 1970
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When the South African Police Services (SAPS) released its latest set of statistics mid-year, the numbers again showed a decrease of about seven percent on all reported “contactÀ crimes such as murder, assault and sexual assault.

But there was a caveat. The figures on rape only ran until December 2007, when the Sexual Offences Act came into force. That law has expanded the definition of rape to include male rape and all forms (not just penal) penetration. So the police expect the numbers to rise when the next set of data is released, and they are painfully aware that these are just reported cases of sexual assault; estimates are that the real figure could be nine times higher.
At the start of the 2008 Sixteen Days of Activism Campaign, we are no wiser as to what the real extent of gender violence is in South Africa. What we do know is that it is unacceptably high and that every day it takes new forms; including over the last year taxi and transport related violence; gender violence linked to xenophobia and trafficking (a major concern with Soccer 2010 on the horizon). Elections in March next year carry with them the specter of gender violence linked to dirty political campaigning.
In August this year Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of State signed a Protocol on Gender and Development that commits the region to halve current levels of gender violence by 2015.
Amid the several ongoing campaigns against gender based violence (GBV), a team of NGOs, government and academic researchers have started work on an innovative project, based initially in the City of Johannesburg, on how to measure gender violence; and more important how to measure whether it is declining.
A challenge that no government in the world has satisfactorily resolved, the team, comprising Gender Links, the Medical Research Council, People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA), the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), SAPS and the Inter Departmental Management Committee in government responsible for GBV has so far made some key conceptual breakthroughs.
The first hurdle that researchers face is how to define gender violence. In similar work on GBV indicators, the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) decided to focus specifically on Violence Against Women (VAW). The team has kept the definition as gender violence more broadly, if only to show through the research the extent to which this really is primarily a case of VAW.
The biggest data collection challenge is that the majority of cases of gender violence are never reported and a large number of those that do get reported are withdrawn. As police statistics only cover reported cases, they only tell part of the story. A further complication is that the only specific statistics that most police services have on gender violence concern sexual assault. Statistics on domestic violence are hidden away in such categories as “criminal injuria” and “assault with intent to do bodily harm.” Even femicide (the killing by a man of an intimate female partner) is not recorded as such. The only way to obtain this information is through docket analysis.
An important breakthrough this year is that, as a result of the lobbying over many years, SAPS now has a category on domestic violence. The next set of statistics will yield the first numbers of reported cases of this form of violence which includes physical, emotional, economic and verbal abuse, though the data will most likely largely be on physical abuse as the other forms are seldom reported.
SAPS is also open to creating a category on femicide. Since all deaths have to be reported, femicide should be the one form of gender violence on which accurate data can be collected through the police.
But that still leaves the many cases of sexual assault and domestic violence that do not get reported. For this, the best way to obtain accurate information is to conduct prevalence surveys. This means taking a sample of the population and administering a questionnaire on experiences of GBV, over the last year as well as over a lifetime.
Such surveys are only as accurate as the sample size is representative of the population. A big budget question that arises is whether to undertake dedicated GBV studies, or to tag these onto existing studies, such as the census or health surveys.
The indicators task team has argued forcefully for a dedicated study. This is because researchers for GBV studies need to be carefully trained in order to obtain information that is often painful and may need to be accompanied by counseling services.
The team has, however, argued that one cost cutting measure could be to combine GBV attitude and prevalence surveys since these use similar methodologies. An additional advantage is that by obtaining information on the occurrence of gender violence and perceptions on the matter from the same people, it is possible to draw correlations between experiences and attitudes. For example, what are the differences in the way that a perpetrator and a survivor of GBV view the issue?
Questions will also cover knowledge and experiences of service provision. The questions will be both quantitative and qualitative. The “I” stories, are an important way of giving a human face to stories of anonymous women that often get lost in police and court statistics. 
Other research tools proposed include analysis of political commitment through monitoring of statements and actions by leaders and media monitoring. The pilot study, due to start next year, will be conducted in three metropolitan and surrounding areas of Southern Africa including the City of Johannesburg, with a view to cascading it nationally and regionally in 2010.
Only data such as this can help us establish the true extent and effect of gender violence so that in 2015 we can measure whether progress has been made. Only by measuring progress, however small and however nuanced, can we emerge from the collective sense of helplessness that often engulfs us as we fight this scourge.
Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service. For more information on the Sixteen Day campaign go to    

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