Definitions and Data Essential in Fight against Gender-Based Violence


By Jillian Foster

“GBV reminds women that they are not in charge of their lives or their bodies, and that men ought to be.”

Gender-based violence (GBV) is both literal – child marriage, human trafficking, rape, honor killings, and more – and figurative, wielded as a threat. Women experience markedly higher rates of violence, whether direct and explicit or implied, simply because they are women.

Don’t take my word for it. Read the facts: [i]

  • Thirty-five percent of women globally have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence (IPV); up to 70 percent, in some contexts.
  • In 2012, almost half of all women killed were murdered by intimate partners or family members.
  • Just over 1 in 10 girls has experienced rape or other forced sexual acts.
  • Women and girls represent 98 percent of the estimated 4.5 million people who have been sexually trafficked or exploited.
  • In the United States alone, 83 percent of girls between ages 12 and 16 reports having experienced sexual harassment in public schools.

Despite the pervasiveness of GBV, incidences remain largely under-reported. Women struggle to navigate abusive relationships and to survive in a global culture that often legitimizes rape while simultaneously restricting access to reproductive health care. Moreover, women’s mobility, voice, and participation are implicitly confined by structures of social control – gender roles that restricted women to domestic labor, gender norms requiring a deferential tone from women in professional and personal relationships, stigma and shame assigned to victims of sexual violence, and policing tactics that incriminate victims.

GBV and Race, Class, Disability

It is extremely important to understand how race, class, and disability intersect with GBV. Girls living in poverty are 2.5 times more likely to be child brides than those living in the wealthiest quintile. In 2014, an Indian woman unable to pay a bribe was gang raped by four police officers. Rape and HIV have been used as tools of conflict in Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya, to name a few. Forced sterilization, often targeted at women of color, has been practiced for over 100 years in the United States.

Disabled people are at greater risk of GBV. In a recent project bridging data analytics with qualitative field research in partnership with the Women’s Refugee Commission, our team found that women with disabilities in Burundi, Ethiopia, and Jordan all reported having children as a result of rape.[ii]

A mentally disabled woman in Bujumbura, Burundi, explained: “I have ‘crises’ – and people take profit during these ‘crises.’ This is when men come to rape me – I don’t know any of the fathers of my [four] children.”

In Jordan, women married to men with disabilities reported being sexually harassed in public. And in Ethiopia and Jordan, refugees with disabilities reported sexual and monetary exploitation when accessing services and assistance. Finally, men in these contexts reported a loss of honor and dignity as breadwinners unable to provide for their families. Indeed, men who do not fit masculine norms can themselves become vulnerable to GBV.

 Bumps in the Road

There are substantial challenges to tackling GBV globally. First, a universal definition of GBV and related sub-issues has not been reached. This hinders the prosecution of perpetrators, the conduct of research, and the creation of public policy. A second challenge is globally entrenched institutional and social biases. Speaking of violence against women, and IPV in particular, Heise et al. write, “Despite its high costs, almost every society in the world has social institutions that legitimize, obscure and deny abuse.”[iii] Third, GBV-related incident and accountability data are largely lacking at this point. This can be traced to (1) the general marginalization of GBV and violence against women as an a la carte issue that affects only women, (2) minimal funding allocated to GBV-specific data gathering, and (3) pure difficulty collecting data on a topic as sensitive in nature as GBV.

The Power of Data

It may come as no surprise that I would recommend data, data, and more data to remedy these challenges. Once global definitions for GBV have been accepted, data should be gathered in a systematic, transparent, and confidential process that will allow researchers, policymakers, and survivors fluid access to information and avenues for input as policy takes shape. Moreover, this same data should be used to track ideally declining trends in GBV and ideally increasing trends in accountability for perpetrators and those that prosecute them.

The Clinton Global Initiative project sponsored by ICAAD, Global Insight, Data-Pop Alliance, and CKM Advisors is an example of a project that is positioned to contribute to the need for more GBV data. My project partners and I are mining legal records from the Pacific Islands, which will yield data for tracking implementation of the United Nations UPR recommendations on violence against women.[iv] The data will also help us better monitor and understand how strengthening rule of law in the region improves the lives of survivors of GBV.

Gender-based violence is an insidious force that works its way into our homes, our workplaces, our governments, and our conflicts, large and small. GBV reminds women that they are not in charge of their lives or their bodies, and that men ought to be. GBV tells women they cannot, should not, and better not, while telling men they must express their masculinity as winner-take-all, dominant, emotionally vapid, and often violent. The global community must collaborate to find solutions at social, political, and legal levels.

Jillian Foster is chief executive officer and specialist in gender, peace, and security at Global Insight.

Photo: Jillian Foster


[i] Facts and Figures: Ending Violence against Women. (Website post.)

[ii] See Building Capacity for Disability Inclusion in Gender Based Violence Programming (GBV) in Humanitarian Settings (Overview).

[iii] Heise et al. (2002). “A global overview of gender-based violence.” International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 78, Suppl. 1, S5–S14.

[iv] The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 United Nations member states. For more visit