Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Statistics • COVID-19 response

Rapidly innovating to produce timely data on violence against women


While we just celebrated International Women's day, we recognize that women continue to face many inequalities and challenges – including rising violence. A recent report by UN Women produced new survey data confirming the "shadow pandemic" that is violence against women (VAW). In a conversation with Jessamyn O. Encarnacion, who is the Inter-Regional Advisor on Gender Statistics at UN Women, we find more about how innovations have helped produce the numbers behind this report.

ISWGHS: Welcome Jessa! We have just celebrated International Women’s Day. We also, however, recognize that women continue to face many inequalities and challenges – including rising violence. A recent report by UN Women produced new survey data confirming the “shadow pandemic” that is violence against women (VAW). I understand that these VAW rapid gender assessments (VAW RGAs) have been conducted via telephone interviews. But it has been said before that it is not a good idea to remotely collect VAW data mainly because women may be at home with their abusers and the interview may result in more violence or in poor quality data. So, what was the thinking behind in pursuing and leading VAW RGAs?

Jessa: Before anything else, I must also say that we must continue to celebrate women and girls everywhere! And thank you for raising a very valid question. While we fully recognize the risks of collecting VAW data, we also equally recognize the dangers of not having the data. So, with funding support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we conducted a study which challenged commonly held beliefs and assumptions on remote VAW data collection but also provided assurance considering the ethical considerations in its collection. We recognized that not only do we need evidence on the VAW situation during the pandemic, but also empirical evidence whether we really cannot collect VAW data remotely in a safe and ethical manner. And to these, UN Women responded by innovating. For example, we had to change the way we collected data as we could not do face-to-face interviews, how we asked sensitive questions over the phone, how we ensured the safety of the respondents when we could only hear their surroundings. This was done with Ipsos, our survey research partner.

ISWGHS: Can you give us some examples of the innovation you just mentioned? What have you done that made telephone interviews work to collect data for such a sensitive topic?

Jessa: Examples of and findings from our innovations are offered as recommendations in a Guidance based on our field operations experience in 13 countries. To highlight a few –

The survey intentionally captured the experiences of women over 49 years, not often covered in regular health surveys with VAW module. When we faced difficulty in reaching older women aged 60+, we used additional contact databases and prioritized age quota completion over regional quota completion.

To build respondent’s trust and ensure their comfort, we asked less-sensitive questions first then eased into the more sensitive questions on VAW. We also used simple response categories with neutral answers such as “yes”, “no”, “agree”, “disagree”.

Understanding that women might be hesitant to report their own experience of violence when directly asked, we adopted proxy measures using vignettes and list randomization, benefitting from World Bank’s experience. With vignettes, we narrated a story on partner abuse and sexual harassment in public spaces. We then asked whether this is common or not in the area where they live. Using list randomization questions on physical intimate partner violence (IPV), respondents were randomly divided into two groups and given the same short list of statements and asked how many, but not which, statements are true. One of the groups was asked an additional statement designed to capture experience of IPV. The difference between the two groups provided an estimate of IPV prevalence.

Protocols also ensured that the speakerphone is turned off and that no one over the age of two was present, in accordance with WHO guidelines. We also set a “safety word” (a popular local food for each country) that respondents could use if they wanted to pause or stop the interview for any reason.

ISWGHS: Now, knowing that you have conducted your VAW RGAs quite successfully, can you give me three pieces of evidence from your RGAs’ experience that counter our common myths held about the collection of VAW data through telephones?

Jessa: First, contrary to popular belief, the lowest drop-out was observed in sensitive questions such as perceptions of violence, conflicts in their home, feelings of safety; and the highest on demographic, mental health, and food security questions. Second, women’s safety was not compromised. Out of 16,000+ women interviewed, only 3% of the interviews were not continued because the women were not or could not transfer to a quiet, private place without the presence of someone over the age of 2. Only 1% had their speakerphones on and another 1% used the “safety word”. In all these cases, we stopped the interview. Third, direct questions on VAW could be asked in remote data collection. After thorough deliberations with the study’s Technical Advisory Group and with clearance from both the NSO and national women’s machinery, we piloted a direct question on VAW in Colombia. Of the 1,200+ women interviewed, no one refused to answer the question. No one used the safe word. Almost all women exhibited no change in behaviour when directly asked about their experience of VAW.

ISWGHS: Now that you have collected all this data, how will the VAW RGAs inform the statistical and policy advocacy work of UN Women moving forward – at the global level and with national partners?

Jessa: Prior to the release of the estimates, we conducted 11 regional and national briefings with over 100 national stakeholders and heard from many of our national partners how they intend to use the data in strategy, advocacy, policy and programme formulation. This year, we are following-up on these dialogues to ensure the connection between data production and data use. At the global level, we will hold a high-level policy dialogue this year to discuss ways forward for intensified data-informed responses to address VAW in COVID-19 recovery and response plans. The Guidance on remote VAW data collection that we developed will also support and capacitate countries in their efforts to produce more data on VAW during the pandemic.

ISWGHS: Now that UN Women has successfully conducted more than 70 RGAs, how do these experiences and lessons learned influence and inform how UN Women supports countries in data collection and capacity development?

Jessa: As part of the ongoing implementation of Women Count, UN Women's global gender data programme, we are steadfastly continuing our data collection efforts on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 this year. Learning from the 70+ RGAs we conducted in the past two years, we are making sure that the first conversation to be held is with data users to establish intended use of expressed information needs. We are also promoting NSO’s leadership in the data collection process.

ISWGHS: Thank you Jessa for this interview. As a concluding remark, any words of wisdom from you on how we in the international statistical community, could carry forward our work in better serving the countries?

Jessa: Inclusiveness, innovation and data use.

We must make sure that we include all relevant actors throughout the process such as our national partners, other experts who have done similar initiatives, colleagues within institutions who implement programmes.

We must challenge commonly held beliefs and assumptions. It is in innovating that we capacitate countries that we serve as well as develop ourselves.

Lastly, it has never been about just having more data. We do our work as statisticians to inform and influence policies and programmes. Let’s all keep our eyes on the prize – that we are contributing to change the lives of people we serve through the data we produce.

Thank you and the ISWGHS for this conversation and our broader partnership.

Jessamyn O. Encarnacion is the Inter-Regional Advisor on Gender Statistics of UN Women’s global gender data programme, Women Count. She manages global projects of the programme, including UN Women’s data needs response for COVID-19— the rapid gender assessments on the socio-economic impacts of and violence against women during COVID-19. Before that, she worked for 15 plus years with the Philippines National Statistical Coordination Board: from an understudy in the gender statistics sector in 1997 to Director of the Social Statistics Office (think: gender, poverty, MDGs) in 2013 and capped her national portfolio as interim Assistant National Statistician of the Philippine Statistics Authority during its formative period in 2014-15.

Interview conducted by Ms. Nemi Okujagu, Statistician and supported by Ms. Haoyi Chen, Coordinator, Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys. Gratitude goes to Ms. Francesca Perucci, Assistant Director of United Nations Statistics Division, for her guidance.