FGM and legal reform

Somalia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs announced it will introduce legislation to ban FGM/C. In my twitter feed, this news was met with exclamations of how it’s a win for women and such progress. But a little more reading shows that the 2012 Somali constitution already considers FGM/C torture and prohibits the practice.

And yet, the WHO estimated in 2006 that 97.9% of women and girls aged 15-49 in Somalia had been cut.


Outlawing the process through the Constitution likely has not resulted in much change to that figure. So, what’s the purpose of making another law that people won’t follow? Well, perhaps the government could direct services to women and girls who didn’t want to be cut, or pay for programming to encourage local leaders and parents to publicly denounce cutting, as has been tried in parts of West Africa, or maybe just getting it in the news again will be useful.

I’m not optimistic, though. Unless real efforts are made to identify and address the normative and cultural aspects of the practice, it’s hard to imagine outlawing it actually being effective.


DV is (in all likelihood) not lower among NFL players

This past week, Benjamin Morris of Vox published an article claiming to show that NFL players are not nearly as violent to their significant others one might think given the rash of disheartening news lately. Using crime data, he attempts to show how arrest rates for domestic violence among NFL players are lower than his comparison group.

Morris takes arrest records from the NFL and compares them to arrest records for 24-29 year old men. This is the first problem with his analysis. He finds that the average age of an NFL player is 27-29, and so claims the relevant comparison group is 24-29 year old men, but it’s not. The average age of an NFL player may be 27-29, but there is a much wider distribution of ages among NFL players than 24-29. Severe physical domestic violence, like many types of crime, is highest among young men and drops off in older age groups. This is a well-documented phenomenon for violent crime, though I’d argue less well understood regarding domestic violence. So while there may not be many 38-year olds in the NFL, comparing them to 24-29-year olds is inherently a problem and biases him away from finding similar rates to the national average.

So why not take just the abuse by 24-29 year olds in the NFL? That likely would lead to some sample size issues, but perhaps it would be better? Not really. Even if we accept his comparison group on the basis of age, it has other issues.

That NFL players are public figures and wealthy makes them less likely to be arrested for (at least) three reasons. One is that the incentives are aligned such that victims will be less likely to call the police.* The potential for significant media attention on your private life is a huge deterrent for victims who are often hiding the abuse from even family and friends. Secondly, also regarding the incentives of the victim, the financial losses from an NFL player being suspended or expelled are huge, both in absolute terms and relative to career earnings. If you miss two games of a 40-game career, that’s significant. A financially dependent significant other also suffers if that happens, one, financially, but also in the case that the abuser elevates the abuse as a punishment for help-seeking.** Third, I’d guess that a lot of police officers are football fans and police officers in many places have discretion in whether to arrest someone. Some don’t, obviously, there are mandatory arrest laws in many places, though variably enforced, which we can talk about those some other time, but in all likelihood, some discretion. But barring any good evidence, I’d venture to guess that for a given 911 domestic violence call, your average 24-29 year old is more likely to be arrested than your average NFL player. And for your given domestic violence incident, significant others of NFL players are less likely to call 911 than your average victim. Again, biases the arrest rate of NFL players downward and away from the national average.

So maybe your comparison group should be other wealthy, public figures. Income and prestige clearly play a role here that is being ignored when you compare arrest rates in the general population to a small, elite group of athletes. Compare them to basketball players or baseball players or best yet, compare them to football players who got cut. Free research idea: check the rosters of NFL players who were cut and see how often they get arrested for domestic violence. That would probably give a better picture of what the arrest rate would look like for NFL players in the absence of the prestige and income issues. But again, you can’t really compare the groups because the income/fame issues are salient.

There’s certainly a possibility that rates of DV are actually lower, even controlling for all of these issues. I won’t deny that it’s possible that NFL players are less likely to be abusers than other young men. They are public figures, and so one might think they pay a greater cost from behaving badly, that social strictures might govern their behavior. But history tells us otherwise: Recall Ben Roethlisberger’s return to football, others speculating that Ray Rice might return as well, media outlets checking to “see how Ray was doing” after Roger Goodell imposed a suspension from the league, the legions of female (!!) fans decked out in Ray Rice gear at the next Ravens game, etc. Social costs don’t look very high to me, and up to now, when the NFL is revising its policy on DV, financial costs have been limited as well.

They also might be different somehow from other young men. Perhaps the dedication and determination needed to succeed in the NFL makes you somehow less violent. It’s one explanation for Morris’ data conclusions, though one that doesn’t hold a lot of water in my view. They could also be different in ways that make them more violent; it’s not really clear.

In any case, lower arrest rates don’t mean lower prevalence rates. Wrong comparison group, wrong metric, wrong conclusions.

And finally, reading an article about crime and domestic violence by a man who spends time in the article admitting to knowing nothing about crime statistics is just absurd. You’re a journalist. It’s your job to ask someone who does know. There are any number of experts and papers that could have helped you to do a better job, even with the bad data. You would totally fail my econometrics class.

Some extra notes:

* Victims are well aware of the possible consequences of calling the police. While some incidents are public and police involvement is unavoidable, most incidents happen in relative privacy and a victim decides whether to involve the police. Reporting rates for domestic violence are astoundingly low and many victims don’t want to involve the police. In cases where they do want to involve the police, many hope that they’ll just help him to cool off a bit; they don’t actually want action taken against him.

** Many victims are financially dependent on their abusers and calling the police might mean they are unable to provide for themselves or their children for a short time (if he’s held in jail for the day, perhaps) or a longer time (if he is incarcerated or she decides to leave). Abusers physically and emotionally control victims through any number of channels: physical violence, instilling fear if they do certain things, controlling income, preventing them from working, and more. One victim’s story I clearly remember was that how in order to go shopping, she would have to go to the store and write down the prices of everything she wanted to buy; she would have to return home where her husband would tally the prices, calculate sales tax, and give her exactly that much money for her to go back to the store and make her purchases. Her husband would check the receipts when she came home to make sure she didn’t keep any money for herself. I’ve talked to women who spent years collecting pennies from the couch and stole dimes out of their husbands’ pockets to collect enough money to leave. These examples may seem extreme, but they’re not all that uncommon. Financial dependence is a real barrier to women leaving violent relationships and calling the police.

You can imagine how this compounds when short-lived high incomes are involved. If your partner is in the NFL and your calling the cops means he misses two games of a 70-game career, that’s a lot of money, both in absolute terms and relative to his expected lifetime earnings. So, if you take away the abuser’s income, you also take away the victim’s livelihood, which means victims might be less likely to call the police when the financial stakes are higher. While the censure coming from players and the media of domestic abusers in the NFL is laudable, I worry that a new policy, one in which players receive 6-game or even longer suspensions, may actually reduce reporting for this group.

Using technology to report crimes against women

I tweeted about an ATM-style machine in India a couple weeks ago that is designed to help women to report crimes of harassment and abuse. I’ve been thinking about what the implications are and what they might mean for women and since Katina prompted me, here are a few thoughts.

Inasmuch as I can tell, reporting a crime of harassment, rape, or sexual assault in any country is a terrible experience. In India, it is particularly bad for many of the reasons listed in the article: all-male police forces with little to no knowledge or training on how to work with victims, threats by family and community members–some of whom may be part of the police force–and threat of revictimization by the police themselves. There are groups and governments trying to combat this. For instance, the police force in Gujarat is experimenting with quotas for women in the police force. Other groups implement gender sensitization training.

So, a way to circumvent that process seems pretty ideal. The added bonus of being able to speak into the machine in the case of illiteracy is also pretty awesome, provided the ATM is in a safe place. My first question, though, is what happens next. The article mentioned at least one incident where an abusive husband was being pursued by the police, but are all complaints acted upon? If they are, a woman is eventually going to have to have contact with the police and potentially face those embarrassing questions, harassment, or groping mentioned in the article. Where is the change in the police force itself that makes reporting a not-quite-as-awful experience? One that might result in outcomes that actually help a victim?

Finally, it’s not clear that interaction with the police is the best way of stemming abuse. A widely circulated piece by a British-Pakistani entrepreneur last week showed how a serial abuser was welcomed back into her community even after several individuals had alleged abuse. A prison sentence likely won’t mean he can’t get a job or eat dinner with his family. Reporting abuse often means that for a woman.

Ultimately, until there is evolution in the acceptability of domestic violence and a rejection of norms that put women’s safety last, I’m not convinced that novel methods of reporting will have a great effect on the incidence of abuse, assault, and sexual harassment or the structures that support it.

What works for women and girls, redux

Woman ironing clothes in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India
Woman ironing clothes in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India

Last week, I wrote a little about my contiuous struggle with the word “empowerment” and what it means in the context of improving the lives of women and girls. In particular, I mentioned a few World Bank studies that examine “what works?” and how can we incorporate the knowledge of local context into our understanding of empowerment. Then, a survey by DFID came across my desk asking a similar kind of “what works” question, but posing it to researchers, practitioners, and funders. If you’re involved in research, funding, or implementation of programs that target violence against women and girls, I encourage you to take the survey and be involved in the subsequent discussion groups. For my part, I can say that my involvement with DFID (through the partnership with the Nike FoundationGirl Hub) was extremely informative and worthwhile.

Because the survey asks about rigorous evidence, I think it’s also worth mentioning some of my own work on the subject (with Laurie Ball Cooper). While the programmatic mapping is a bit old by now (I know plenty of new programs have been put in place), I think the overarching takeaway is the same. We need more evidence about what works to reduce violence and discrimination against women and girls. Whether that’s accomplished through increased impact evaluations, RCTs, use of secondary or administrative data, or experimental ethnography, great, but we need more evidence.

All of the papers that came out of that DFID workshop are worth a read. Here’s a link to one a linkt to one more from IFPRI’s Agnes Quisumbing and Chiara Kovarik.

Women’s security and work in India

Pretty much all I think about these days is women’s labor force participation, primarily in India. One of the big things on my mind is how increased reports of sexual assault, rape, and other crimes against women, particularly on public transportation, affect labor market entry and exit, hours worked etc. I’m clearly not the only one thinking about this as the Indian government has released a budget detailing pretty significant investment in women’s safety and to address crime.

From an article on the new budget:

“Women’s safety is a concern shared by all the honourable members of this House. We need to test out different approaches that can be validated and scaled up quickly,” he said.

The government plans to spend $9 million on a pilot scheme to improve women’s safety on public transport, and an additional $28 million in large cities.

“Crisis Management Centres” will also be set up in all government and private hospitals in the capital, to provide support to victims of crimes such as rape and domestic violence.

The number of crimes against women in India reported to the police such as rape, dowry deaths, abduction and molestation increased by 26.7 percent in 2013 from a year earlier, rising to 309,546 from 244,270, the National Crime Records Bureau says.

One of the primary questions is whether these increases in rape, dowry death , abduction and molestation are a result of some changes in female autonomy, or labor force participation, or something else that could lead to backlash, or whether it’s just an increase in reporting due to reduced stigma associated with reporting. It could also be something else all together, of course, but at least someone’s paying attention.

Thinking about defining domestic violence

A colleague from Bates College (with whom I happened to share an advisor in grad school) visited last week to give a seminar at Lafayette and we started talking about writing a paper together. Working off each of our comparative advantages, it’s going to be about domestic violence in India.

As a result, this morning I was thinking about how to code up domestic violence to put into regression analysis and how defining gender-based or domestic violence is part and parcel to the type of question you’re trying to answer.

For example, many surveys include violence by a partner, a husband, a boyfriend, a father, an in-law, and any number of other actors. My quick response to SD this morning was to divide the categories (not mutually exclusive, perhaps) like this.

1. By a romantic partner
2. By a husband (romantic partner with legal implications)
3. By a member of her husband’s family
4. By a member of her own family.
5. By anyone when it’s gender-motivated.

2 and 3 (and possibly 1 depending on societal structures) have implications for bargaining power-type questions and investments in children. 1, 4, and 5 have greater implications for society at large.


Code ’em all up, I say.

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?


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