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Measuring danger for women? Why measurement matters

June 17, 2011

On Thursday TrustLaw published the results of a poll measuring the five most dangerous places to be a woman in the world. As Keshet Bachan points out in a blog piece, in a male dominated media environment, the survey did a great job in raising awareness of the dangers women face around the world. Afhanistan came top, followed by the DRC, Pakistan, India and Somalia – all countries in which women face violence, whether it be in the form of rape or domestic abuse, or a lack of healthcare for pregnant women.

The statistics, and quotes, are appropriately shocking:

In Afghanistan, there is still no law criminalising rape. Haiti only criminalised rape in 2005. And Pakistan fails to recognise marital rape and severely punishes women having sex outside marriage.

And indeed, the report has served it’s original purpose well; it has grabbed media attention, it has shocked, and it has raised awareness. Working in a field where you are confronted with and are working on women’s rights issues every day, its easy to forget that the whole world isn’t as aware about the prevalence of FGM, or the immense dangers involved in child birth for many.

Despite the fact that I can recognise the importance of the survey and of the attention it has received, the survey itself sits uneasy with me.

Natasha Lennard in a piece in The Salon has critiqued the survey,  both for its methodology, and for the fact that ‘it was always going to point to Non-Western countries as the most dangerous for women’. Keshet Bachan hits back, asserting that ‘It doesn’t even matter if the survey is scientifically accurate or not’.

Scientific accuracy in this sense seems absurd and deeming, to attempt to measure the rights abuses women face in this way would detract from the lived experiences of the women in the countries.

Measurement however, does matter, and this is what sits uncomfortably with me about the survey – gender ‘experts’ are asked to place values upon the rights abuses of women.

Measurement matters because it is a question of voice; it allows one party, by drawing upon their perceptions, to make a judgement about the situation of another, often placing a label upon their situation – DRC as ‘the rape capital of the world’, for example.

How women’s rights abuses are measured and reported is a crucial question for the women’ rights movement, because it has the potential to let women’s voices shine through, to give women the opportunity to express the nuanced violations of these rights, in their own words. Rape is undoubtedly a problem in the DRC, but what about the women who haven’t been raped, but have experienced other abuses? Or of the men who have? How do women themselves see violations of their rights; what are the biggest dangers they see in their own lives?

And, more importantly, how do they fight against these?

The TrustLaw survey has taken a great first step in raising awareness, and attracting attention, but I hope the attention trapping demands of media advocacy in the future don’t detract from the importance of nuance, from moving beyond labels, and from thinking critically about measurement, voice and reporting.

UPDATE: Rosebell makes some excellent points here

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 17, 2011 5:10 pm

    Good analysis. It’s disappointing to see reactions like Bachan’s which fail to engage with the different points of criticism.

    They could also have added a question to the survey which might have helped it go beyond a vague ‘wake-up call: “As a gender expert, what role do you think there is for the (predominantly Western) audience who hear about these survey results if they want to contribute to reducing the dangers to women in these countries?”

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