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The Case for Investing in Gender Equality

March 11, 2015

By Eileen Pennington

The debate over women’s rights as a central element of development has been transformed in the 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s clarion call to action, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Evidence accumulated over the intervening years has led to a new understanding that women’s rights and gender equality benefit whole societies.

Women in India

The debate over women’s rights as a central element of development has been transformed in the 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s clarion call to action, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Photo/Karl Grobl

This evidence, drawn from compilations like the World Bank’s Gender Equality database and studies such as J-PAL’s randomized policy experiment, “Women as Policymakers in India,” and from assessments of ongoing programs to empower women, such as the Lancet’s recent series on effective strategies to prevent violence against women, have clearly demonstrated that investing in women is the sine qua non of modern development practice. For example, the UN has estimated that the Asia-Pacific economy would grow by $89 billion annually if women were able to achieve their full economic potential.

As experts, activists, world leaders, and policymakers convene in New York City this week for the 59th Commission on the Status of Women to assess the progress made toward gender equality, it is useful to reflect on the central importance of evidence in moving the global community toward this critical goal. The power of data to transform the debate is perhaps most evident in the global fight to stop violence against women, which has emerged as a major focus within the 59th CSW and in ongoing deliberations about the post-2015 development agenda. A 2013 metastudy of existing prevalence research on intimate partner violence (IPV) and non-partner sexual violence found that IPV affects one in three women globally, and that up to 38 percent of murdered women were killed by an intimate partner. The economic and societal costs are staggering. For example, a 2012 UNWomen study estimated that up to 1.8 percent of Vietnam’s annual GDP is lost due to the direct and indirect costs of domestic violence.

The 2005 World Health Organization’s multi-country study on the prevalence of IPV, which included data from 10 countries, remains the “gold standard” in terms of the robust data collection, analytical approach, and ethical standards. The research teams literally wrote the book on how to conduct studies on sensitive topics like violence against women without further harming respondents, and prompted a number of additional country studies utilizing the same methodology. These studies firmly established the pervasive, global problem of IPV and the pernicious impacts it has on women’s lives. Further studies have sought to identify the drivers of IPV, analyze the costs of violence to survivors, communities, and societies, and begin to understand how gender inequalities contribute to violence and impunity.

Last month, I attended a week-long course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), whose Gender, Violence, and Health Centre has become a center of gravity in the effort to build the evidence base on issues related to gender-based violence and the impact on health outcomes. The course is designed to raise the quality of research on violence-related issues to a higher level. The course organizers, Cathy Zimmerman, Charlotte Watts, and Karen Devries, shared their insights into the last decade of applied research, rooted in their innovative, real-world experience. They and their LSHTM-based colleagues have worked in partnership with other research organizations and NGOs to better understand the dynamics of gender-based violence and to critically assess and identify effective approaches to ending violence against women.

I came away with some new skills and insights. I was strongly reminded that research is not just a powerful advocacy tool, but in an era of reduced funding for development assistance, it also points the way forward to sharpen our approach and build on best practices globally. For example, the DFID-funded research consortium, “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls,” of which LSHTM is a member, is continuing to blaze the trail. Such efforts to analyze effective prevention and response interventions are critical. I was also reminded that, as the standard for “robust” research is steadily raised, it is incumbent on practitioners to ensure that our research questions are sound and specific, and that the methods we choose, while out of necessity shaped by our resource, time, and other constraints, remain worthy of our goals. The time has passed when weak research could still make waves simply because so little data are available on a given topic. For example, on March 3, The Washington Post published a fact-checker article debunking a widely used but fallacious statistic on women’s income and property holding. The article underscores the fact that data are only powerful as long as they are trusted and accurate.

Another takeaway from the course was that, since conducting high-quality research represents a significant investment of time and money, our research questions must remain focused on understanding real-world problems in order to create a feedback loop that helps women, men, and their communities prevent violence before the pernicious cycle starts. For survivors of gender-based violence, better data must result in more and better programs to assist them and provide meaningful alternatives that allow survivors to have agency in determining the shape of their lives. For policymakers, this data must prompt new action and investments that improve the laws against gender-based violence and strengthen their implementation, which is often the greatest shortcoming.

It wasn’t easy to get to this stage, where we could argue for women’s empowerment on the basis of evidence that even hardened skeptics cannot ignore. Now it is time to take this emerging consensus and invest: to build on what we know works in order to eliminate violence against women once and for all, and to enable women to craft their futures as equal partners with men.

Eileen Pennington is associate director for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. she can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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