Awesome things at SVRI Forum

After an awesome week in Bangkok, I thought I’d share some of the conversations, research, and events that happened last week because I’m feeling privileged to have been able to spend time with such a diverse, animated group of researchers and people passionate about ending sexualized violence. It was a singular experience, to be sure, and I can’t wait for the next one. Below is a partial list of the awesome things I saw and heard at the SVRI Forum in Bangkok, in no particular order.

  • Research on LRA child soldiers and the harsh methods used to control them by Jocelyn Kelly of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.
  • Tweet-ups. Such a fantastic group tweeting the Forum and interacting online. Storified here.
  • An Egyptian woman recounting how she and her daughter went to the Tahrir protests for two weeks in a large group of women, and how her daughter became more autonomous, independent, and opinionated as a result.
  • A Bhutanese woman talking lovingly of her King, who she thinks looks like Elvis Presley, and the modest cottage he inhabits.
  • Limited positive effects of cash transfers on instance of intimate partner violence in Ecuador by Amber Peterman of the school that shall not be named.
  • An American woman recalling the 70s in Berkeley and abortion activists offering to pay her to get arrested to perform an abortion without a license
  • The same American woman recalling her interactions with rural Japanese housewives.
  • Lots of UN and NGO politics.
  • A Kenyan woman surmising that Kenyatta has the potential to be Kenya’s greatest president yet, if (and that’s a big IF) he doesn’t end up being a war criminal.
  • Thai food. So much wonderful, delicious Thai food.
  • Kate Falb of the Yale School of Public Health on multi-faceted interventions addressing gender inequality and economic empowerment in Cote d’Ivoire.

There were so many more. Check out all the presentations online.

SVRI Forum

I’m in Bangkok this week for the SVRI Forum. I was promised a lively event full researchers, practitioners and those generally interested sexualized violence and gender-based violence, and it’s turned out to be awesome. The Forum has expanded this year to include trafficking and child protection; the latter topic brought me here.

I’m tweeting much of it (when I’m not too tired to think), as are several others at the conference. If you’re interested, I suggest checking out the hashtags #SVRI and #SVRIForum@TheSVRI is retweeting many of the best tweets and a fellow conference-goer, @prabudeepan, has storified yesterday’s tweets. So, even if you’re sleeping as I hear about stats and interventions, you can get all caught up.

For just a taste of my first day’s reflection, I’ll say that it’s wonderful to be at a conference of like-minded people. It’s rare to look at a conference program and think, “I want to attend every one of those sessions,” but that’s the case here. It’s also wonderful to reconnect with the folks I’m working with in Zimbabwe, as well as many individuals I met last year in London at the Nike/DFID conference on adolescent girls. And new people! There are so many smart, wonderful people doing work in this field.

I’ll leave my more somber notes for a longer post after it’s over.

Cognitive effects of poverty

A new paper by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao shows some pretty profound effects of poverty on cognition and decision making. The paper says that poverty is equivalent to pulling all-nighters in terms of its effect on your ability to perform routine tasks and make good decisions. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark Hecker, director of Reach, Inc., a nonprofit working on literacy in DC, about children who’ve been abused. He asked me to think about that feeling of indigence and anger that shoots up when someone bumps into you. It’s startling, difficult to process, and affects everything we do next. Children who’ve suffered abuse feel that way all the time, which puts additional stress on them to make good decisions, to concentrate in school, and more.

It’s a good reminder that putting ourselves in someone else’ shoes is often impossible; someone who has grown up middle class never worrying about money is not going to approach large expenditures the same way that someone who grew up poor will. Analyzing decision making of poor and disadvantaged individuals is subject to so many more constraints that we realize.

VAWA passes!

This is old news by this point, I know. I tell ya, you go to lunch and big things happen. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization bill passed the House of Representatives today in the form passed by the Senate earlier this month. Yay! And given President Obama’s comments, I think we can safely say it will be law soon. I am very disappointed to see that Scott Perry voted against it. I guess he just needs to hear from me more often.

Now, fix the sequester?

 

As long as we’re talking about violence against women…

It’s VAW week here, it seems. I railed about the Oscar Pistorius trial last week and how it obscures the larger pictures of violence against women in South Africa. As of last night, it seems that the House is ready to (sneakily?) pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, replete with protection for LGBTQ individuals and college students, and a strengthened ability for trial courts to act within their own borders (call your congressperson). The CDC also released a special report of its violence and victimization data with a focus on gender and sexual orientation. This is huge because national level surveys often don’t provide large enough samples of LGBTQ individuals or victims of violence in general to extrapolate to national level statistics.

Last, but not least, the UNFPA released a pamphlet advertising its commitment to data-gathering on violence against women and girls and gender-based violence. In the era of big data, it’s perhaps hard to believe. But while we may be able to track all of the things you buy and the time you spend driving and how much time you spend on the internet at work instead of working, we know very little about gender-based violence all over the world. In my own field work, perhaps the biggest constraint I found is that there is not a good consensus on how to define violence. UNFPA agrees:

Why is it so hard for the humanitarian community to generate quality data and meet ethical and safety standards?
• Lack of standardization in GBV terminology, data collection tools and incident classification; also, lack of uniformity in how and what data is collected.
If I have to be a brat about it, I’d say what data are collected, but I think the spirit is right. Consensus on what is included in violence and better attention paid to the dangers and pitfall associated with measuring violence against women and girls should be a significant part of the work going forward.

CDC intimate violence report by gender and sexual orientation

For what appears to the be the first time, the CDC has released a report on intimate partner violence separated out by sexual orientation. As most national level surveys that address domestic violence include very limited samples of out LGBT populations, this is pretty huge. After a quick read, the report seems to confirm what we already knew, that lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to have been stalked and experienced rape or physical violence by an intimate partner. While 35% of heterosexual women report one or more of these, 43.8% of lesbian women and 61.1% of bisexual women report the violations. Heterosexual and bisexual women reported mostly male perpetrators (98.7% and 89.5%), while lesbian women reported mostly (67.4%) female perpetrators.

Bisexual men also reported higher levels than heterosexual men of lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, but gay men had the lowest rate. The numbers might surprise you. 29% of heterosexual men report such violations, while 35.0% of heterosexual women did, with the vast majority of both reporting that the offender was of the opposite sex.

It’s important to note that the takeaway message from these findings is not that men and women batter at the same rate. These statistics are well in line with survey results from national level longitudinal studies such as the National Survey on Families and Households in spirit, if not in absolute percentages (underreporting on such surveys is expected). Extensive work on surveys like this repeatedly emphasize that incidence and report of violence are not the same as power and control. While relatively similar numbers of men (~25%) and women (>30%) report light to moderate physical violence, far more women (23.6% of hetersoexual women to 29.4% of lesbian women) than men (13.9%-16.4%)report severe physical violence, including half of bisexual women.

HALF.

These statistics underscore the disproportionately large role that men play in perpetrating violence, even while it obscures the larger reasons behind it. They also show those in the LGBT community are at much greater risk for violence and stalking by intimate partner, be it a man or a woman, and hopefully calls attention to the need for the House of Representatives to pass VAWA in the form passed with a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate.

I wrote my Congressman

I’m kind of new to this Pennsylvania resident thing. Despite having taught at Gettysburg for a year and a half now, I still pay a lot of attention to Colorado politics, to Venezuelan politics, even to North Carolina politics. However, I’m also a whiz at writing to my representatives in Congress and Senators, and I figure it’s time I do that a little more regularly with the people I voted for (or didn’t vote for) in November.

The Violence Against Women Act is a piece of legislation that’s very close to my heart, having studied it in depth as a graduate student and tried everything in my power to get an economics dissertation out of it. It didn’t fly, but you can bet Scott Perry‘s going to go get a few letters from me this week as the House version makes its way through committees. I thought I’d share his latest response to my letter urging him to pass VAWA in the form the Senate had passed it, which I was surprised to see was rather specific and didn’t commit to a position.

ScottPerryLetterI’m used to getting replies from members of Congress that say something to the effect of, “thanks for your concern and taking time to write,” but this one outlined the VAWA saga for me. It’s just a form letter, I know, (though you can bet I made sure to put the Dr. part in there) but he’s new and he doesn’t seem to have committed to a side yet. Maybe there’s hope.

Write your congressperson!

Update: As I was writing this, Roll Call published a piece saying that the House might actually vote on the Senate version as early as Thursday. Cautiously optimistic?

The South African OJ

I awoke early this morning to a twitter stream full of live tweets from the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing (just a bail hearing, truly, not even a murder trial, what are we in for?), and one grumpy twitterer state-side complaining about it. Does every African correspondent have to live-tweet this trial?, he asked. One of those correspondents responded indignantly that the legions of new twitter followers disagreed with him, perfectly illustrating a collective action problem. Individually, each correspondent is likely to get more attention, more followers, more renown, by live-tweeting the case. Collectively, there’s a ton of overlap in what comes out of that courtroom via any number of news sources. Do we really need all of it? Or, a more pointed question, do we really need all of it when it clearly means neglecting the wealth of other news that is coming out of South Africa?

This whole ordeal reminds me of the trial OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. I remember the bustle around cameras in the courtroom. I have a distinct memory of Johnnie Cochran screaming in verse “The glove does not fit; you must acquit.” I don’t know if that memory comes from 1995—when I surely should have been in school—or if it was from later years of my brother practicing either his lawyering skills or his comedy routine. That trial was weirdly formative for both of us. I study intimate partner violence and he’s studying to practice criminal defense. But I digress.

The coverage of the Pistorius case is alarming and problematic for many of the same reasons the OJ SImpson case was. It’s about him; it’s never about her. In an early article on the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in the New York Times, her name didn’t appear until the 8th graf.

The eighth. Poor woman was murdered and she’s relegated to the sideshow. And so it is with the some 55,000 women who report rape every year in South Africa. With the approximately 2000 women who die every year at the hands of their partners, husbands, and boyfriends.

Meanwhile, Mr. Narcissistic showman will get to spend months telling the world what an upstanding guy he is and how much he loved his girlfriend.

I know the response to this will be the knee-jerk reaction of “surely more attention on the case will lead to more attention on this issue of domestic violence.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s the good kind of attention. It’s the kind of attention that leads people to talk in secret about their neighbors’ fights, but never call the police. It’s the kind of attention that makes a clearly dysfunctional relationship look run of the mill, happy, even, and thus perfectly normal. It’s the kind that glorifies the accomplishments of the accused in a fall-from-grace-surely-he-couldn’t-have scenario which minimizes the gravity and prevalence of violence and encourages the shaming of help-seekers. My research, and that of many others, shows that unless you normalize and encourage help-seeking, even reeling off all those stats that I did above only makes the behavior seem normal, even accepted, intensifying the shame and dangers associated with reporting.

As far as I can tell, this bail hearing is not about putting domestic violence on trial. The media coverage is not about exposing the total lack of response by authorities to a national problem. None of it is about normalizing help-seeking. It’s about a fallen hero (though whose hero, I’m not sure). It’s sensationalizing the story of a “wronged lover” when the true victim cannot tell her story. It is normalizing domestic violence, the idea that what happens in my home is none of the world’s business.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this trial will result in a national reawakening to the incredible problem that South Africa has with domestic violence, boasting some of the highest rates in the world of intimate partner injuries and killings. Maybe it will prompt more funding for programs and soap operas with a message like Soul City, or better yet, more evaluation, so we can figure out what they’re doing well and how to replicate them. Maybe we could use some of that redundant labor in the courtroom to do just that.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion or Caracas, part I

This is Part I of II, a bit of my August Caracas adventure. It’s a bit different style than perhaps other work you’ve seen here, but I hope you enjoy it. The following is cross-posted at Caracas Chronicles.

We’re not quite seated, but I’ve already launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. For perhaps the fifth time that day, I say I’m an American, an economics professor and I’m looking for data on domestic violence and gender-based violence in Venezuela. I want statistics, raw data, information about programs, confirmation that there really was no women’s shelter in the whole country, basically anything she could give me.

Milta Armas, a 40-something, curvy woman, starts telling me about how many women experience violence, but she refuses to look me in the eye. Armas keeps her hands in her lap, fingering a copy of the new domestic violence law, which I’m sure she’s going to hand to me later. The hype on legal reform, I expect, but not the details she’s ratling off, barely audible over the din of the INAMUJER lobby. I start jotting down her words and numbers, thinking this was easy. It only took me two ministries to start to get information. I just had to show up.

Then she pauses.

“These are, of course, what happens in the world, not in Venezuela. We don’t have these statistics for Venezuela.” Suddenly, I remember. “This,” I think to myself, “is why my expectations for this trip were low.”

I press her a little more. If those aren’t Venezuela statistics, what does she have? What data are even collected? What do we really know?

“Well,” she says without the slightest hint of embarrassment, “no manejamos este tipo de informacion.”

Oh brother.

It’s not just that the National Institute for Women, a program that houses a domestic abuse helpline and runs workshops for women living in slums on how to recognize and combat domestic violence in their homes and communities, doesn’t seem to have any information on the things they spend all day dealing with, it’s that the language she used was all too familiar. Her words mirrored exactly those of a representative of the Ministry for the Popular Power of Women, which is where I’d wasted the previous day. It was the same language I would hear later in the week as I talked to the National Police (CICPC) and when I tried to make an appointment with the National Defender of Women’s Rights.

No manejamos este tipo de informacion. And no one could tell me who does. My task, wasn’t just daunting, it was impossible. If there were no national statistics on domestic violence at the highest levels of government, I wasn’t sure to find much else.

In reality, of course, (and reality is always shady in Venezuela), there are statistics; it’s just a question of whether you know the right person to get a hold of them.

A source, who asked not to be named to make sure she keeps getting data, showed me a leaked booklet outlining statistics on the national 24/7 helpline 0-800-MUJERES, maintained and run by INAMUJER. They keep a tally of who is calling, why, what kind of abuse they are experiencing, whether they’ve called before, who the aggressor is, their mental state and more. It’s all very run-of-the-mill information that is collected on hotline calls in other places, certainly in the US. It also probably represents that best guess they have as to changes in levels of domestic violence over time, but it was not information they were willing to give to me, or even acknowledge that they had. I snuck a quick photo of a key data table – which you can see above.

I can understand why they might not trust me. Caracas’ violence problems are world-renowned and a source of embarrassment for the government and citizens; I see why they might not want a foreigner to publicize another ugly aspect of it.

Milta Armas told me that one time, there was some information, and they had put it on the website, only that as soon as they got it up, “there was an attack by the opposition to try to make the government look bad.”

“That is not a serious answer,” Ofelia Álvarez told me when I related the story. Ofelia runs Fundamujer, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and eradicating violence against women, out of her home and mostly on her own.

As one of the most visible and prominent advocates for women in Venezuela—nearly everyone I talked to sent me back to her—she has spent decades fighting the same fight I fought in just a few weeks. The issue is politically awkward: no one wants to fund studies, no one wants to support discussions. A pilot study she coauthored was abruptly defunded before it was rolled out to a representative survey group. No one handles that kind of information because there’s no desire to, she told me.

It’s not that we can’t; it’s that we don’t.

On harmful traditional practices and disbelief

If you’ve ever read a news article about female genital mutilation or footbinding and found yourself wondering, why on earth would anyone submit another person to such a horrific act, I have just the article for you. Mackie and LeJeune, in this 2009 UNICEF working paper on harmful traditional practices, do an excellent job of explaining, without judgement and with grace, the persistence of FGM/C and footbinding (among other harmful practices) in an eloquent and approachable manner. I can’t say you’ll leave the article uplifted, but I promise it reads faster than its 42 pages might suggest. And, you’ll learn a lot. There’s even a little game theory in there for my economist friends. The abstract is here:

The essay refines the application of the social convention theory to the practice female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The theory compares footbinding in China to FGM/C in Africa, explains each practice in terms of simple game theory, and recommends that the methods used to end footbinding be adapted to end FGM/C. It hypothesizes that each practice originated in highly stratified ancient empires, and became an ongoing requirement of marriageability, general and persistent within the intramarrying community because no one family can give it up on its own. The continuation or the abandonment of each practice involves a set of social rewards and punishments and operates as what is known in social science as a social norm. The theory argues that each practice is a community practice that must be ended by the whole community coordinating on its abandonment, thereby solving the marriageability problem. The game-theoretic portrayal also identifies social dynamics of abandonment, observed in both China and Africa. An initial core group, called the critical mass, recruits others through organized diffusion, until a large enough proportion of the community, referred to as the tipping point, is ready to abandon. A moment or process of public commitment is essential to ensure a stable abandonment. The essay also refines the theory, in light of observed mass abandonments of FGM/C in different countries. Overcoming self-enforcing beliefs surrounding the practice requires credible new information, including about the feasibility and desirability of attaining the uncut alternative. FGM/C is maintained as a marriageability convention, social norm, or both. The process for reversing a social norm can be identical to reversing a social convention. Reversal is motivated by the fundamental moral norm of loving one’s children and wanting the best for them, as discovered and developed in transformative human rights deliberations. The essay establishes a conceptual foundation for programme design that facilitates community abandonment of a variety of harmful practices in ways that promote human rights and are respectful of the culture and the values of local communities.

Cited: Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2009), ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory’. Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices, Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009-06, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.