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"Breaking the cycle: research for preventing violence against women" - blogpost by Natalia Ollus

8.3.2023 | News item

HEUNI has a long history of working to prevent violence against women. When I joined HEUNI as a young student to work as a research assistant some 20 years ago, the institute was already then engaged in work against gender-based violence.

Illustration of several women together

At the time, there was much international interest in the measurement of crime. In the late 1980s the International Crime Victim Survey (ICVS) was developed by a group of criminologists, who wanted to collect comparable, standardized data directly from people in different countries on their experiences of forms of crime, experiences with the police, and their fear of crime. At the time, the only internationally comparable data source was police-recorded crime. As any criminologist would tell you, the crimes that come to the attention of the police are only “the tip of the iceberg”. Hidden crimes are not reported and not registered, and therefore do not show in police statistics. There are many reasons why people do not report to the police, e.g., they do not think the offence was serious enough to be reported, they do not trust the police, do not think the police will or can help, or they do not want consequences for the perpetrator. The first national population surveys on crime were carried out in the late 1960s in the US, and soon spread to industrialised countries elsewhere.

Colleagues at HEUNI together with some other research institutes envisioned that a similar international and comparable survey should be developed to address also violence against women. Violence against women is very much a hidden crime; it often takes place in the private and intimate sphere, the perpetrator may be someone the victim knows, and societal attitudes and a lack of support may prevent the victim from seeking help. Studies on family violence had existed since the 1970s, and the first national dedicated survey on violence against women had been carried out in Canada in 1993. In 1997, colleagues at HEUNI argued that there was a need for a standardised, internationally comparative survey that would focus on women’s experiences of violence as well as on the criminal justice responses to violence. The International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) project was born as an attempt to collect such data. The IVAWS project was coordinated by HEUNI, with input from UNICRI and Statistics Canada from 1997 to 2008.

I began working at HEUNI around the time when the IVAWS project started. It was an ambitious project; in the end, the survey was implemented in almost 30 countries in one form or the other. The data from 11 countries was analysed in the form of a book, published in 2008 (Johnson, Ollus & Nevala) and showed that violence against women is a common and complex social problem. The data also shows that most of the women did not report to the police, and about a quarter had not told anyone about their experiences before responding to the survey. The IVAWS project was eye-opening for me in many respects. Apart from teaching me how to plan and design population-based surveys, including how to train interviewers in how to encounter respondents in a sensitive manner, it taught me about violence against women and its consequences for victims. It was also a crash course for how to engage and create buy-in with government representatives in countries where the prevention of violence against women was not yet a political priority, and how to use research-based data to support national policymaking.

I was working for UNODC in Southern Africa when the IVAWS was implemented in Mozambique. I was supporting the local research team during the fieldwork. I will never forget when we walked around a local village near the capital of Maputo, using the random walk method , which is a method of selecting households to be interviewed in a village setting. We were conducting pilot interviews, and I got to participate as an observer. An old, intoxicated man was sitting in front of his hut. When the interviewers approached him to ask whether there were any women in the household, he just waved his hand and muttered “-She left me…”. In another household we encountered a woman willing to share her experiences. Sitting on a thin reed mattress on the ground, in a quiet voice she recounted the violence she had endured over her lifetime. It was the first time she disclosed her experiences to anyone. I realised the amount of trust it took from her to talk to us strangers, including a foreigner, and what a responsibility we as researchers had towards her, so that the information she shared was used in a way that is respectful and appreciative towards her, but also is used to hopefully help her – and others – in similar situations. Once the interview was over, we gave her contact details to victim support organisations and other support networks in the area. I do not know what happened to her and the numerous other women worldwide who have trusted interviewers and researchers with details of their lives and experiences. The survey showed that 55% of women in Mozambique had experienced some form of male violence during their lifetime, whereas 36% had experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, and 12% sexual violence by an intimate partner. The data collected in Mozambique eventually contributed towards the development of the first national action plan on violence against women and hopefully also towards more awareness of violence.

Why is this relevant now?

HEUNI’s early work on violence against women, and what we today call gender-based violence, creates a direct continuum to our current work. In 2011-2012 HEUNI participated in the FRA EU-wide study on violence against women , where HEUNI acted as the principal scientific advisors to the project team. We used many of the experiences gained in the IVAWS project, including on how to train interviewers in how to address respondents in a sensitive manner without jeopardising their safety or re-traumatising them. Now, a decade later we continue our work with exploring best practices on assisting victims of gender-based violence and co-creating substantial tools for practitioners, namely:

Now, a decade later we continue our work with exploring best practices on assisting victims of gender-based violence and co-creating substantial tools for practitioners, namely:
Handbook on counselling asylum seeking and refugee women victims of gender-based violence
A Toolkit for Enhancing Counselling for Victims of Gender-Based Violence
Step Forward: A tool for developing an organisational strategy to provide victim-centred support for migrant women victims of gender-based violence

Furthermore, we raise issues of effective assistance to policymakers, with research reports and policy papers, such as:
Unseen Victims. Why Refugee Women Victims of Gender-Based Violence Do Not Receive Assistance in the EU
Policy brief “You hear my concern and help me think of solutions”.

In our recommendations for the next government of Finland (to be elected after the Parliamentary elections in April 2023), we have emphasized that the most vulnerable victims of gender-based violence, such as immigrant women, require specialized services.

Our recommendations include the following:

  • Nationally, there is a need for available and accessible gender-specific services for women.
  • Professionals such as police officers need to be trained on gender-based violence. Additionally, the speed of the criminal process and gender sensitivity in the criminal process must be strengthened.
  • In cases of domestic violence, it is important to note that the phenomenon is often a continuum that includes different types and degrees of violence, rather than investigating events as individual, separate acts of violence. The continuity and coercive control inherent in the phenomenon should be considered when developing legislation related to domestic violence.
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