From staying safe to tackling rape – why we need gender data

The fight for gender equality needs all the data it can get its hands on.

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“Political Correctness Gone Mad,” was the somewhat predictable cry when it was revealed the UK Office for National Statistics is considering altering the "sex" question on the next UK census - for the first time in its 200 year history. 

It is not often you get Philip Davies MP and Germaine Greer arguing on the same side, but for once feminists found themselves in agreement with the conservatives.

The ONS has since clarified that it is simply researching the potential of "collecting information on gender identity as well as data on sex". 

The story has sparked a debate about the best way to represent transgender citizens, who should of course be included in policymaking. But it also has served as a reminder about the importance of collecting gender-disaggregated data, and the role this plays in uncovering the many issues disproportionately affecting women. 

The failure to collect even basic gender-disaggregated data would have serious consequences for policymaking in the UK and globally. 

Without such data, how can we prove that the burden of caring for elderly relatives falls overwhelmingly on women, who may then suffer economically by giving up full-time work prematurely? Or how could we chart the economic and geographic conditions that leave women more vulnerable to suffer domestic violence? How can we expect to effectively to target resources to those most in need, when we don’t know for whom and where the problems are most pronounced?

Nowhere is the need for gender statistics more important than in the ongoing fight to combat violence against women and girls worldwide. As yet another reminder, the cost of such violence is of epic proportions. Interpersonal violence is the number one cause of female death in the world. Best estimates suggest 30 per cent of all women in relationships globally have been subjected to violence by their partners in their lifetimes - that's 769 million women. This is not to mention research by James Fearon and Anke Hoeffler in a 2014 Copenhagen Consensus paper, which indicated that reported sexual violence against women alone costs the world economy $66.6bn annually. 

We are already playing catch-up as it is. As the UN department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2014 recognised, the traditional "problem" with gender statistics is that they are "often seen as addressing a ‘women’s issue...and become marginalised instead of mainstreamed". Outdated data collection methods also too often obscure daily challenges disproportionately faced by women. 

The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals include “achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. But data is currently available for less than one quarter of key gender indicators across the SDGs. Only 13 per cent of countries worldwide have a dedicated budget for collecting and analysing gender statistics. 

The good news it that progress is – slowly – starting to be made. The UN has started project EDGE: Evidence and Data for Gender Equality, while last year the Gates Foundation donated $80m specifically to address gender data gaps. 

New, innovative big data mining techniques offer up new possibilities. Data 2X, a UN data unit, recently announced the 10 winners of the Gender Challenge Awards, covering issues from financial exclusion to perceptions of gender-based violence. 

One winner focused on women’s physical security in Delhi – a city perceived as so dangerous for women that my Indian family warned against me ever walking alone in it, night or day. In 2016, women made distress calls to police every nine minutes, and a rape is reported every four hours. 

The new research funded by Data 2X uses crowd-sourced mobile application data to identify how psychological costs of sexual harassment impact women’s educational choice. Led by Girija Borker at Brown University, the results show that women with the same high test scores as men choose lower-ranked universities - not due to academic confidence, but the real fear of public harassment. Until policy is focused on making public spaces safe for women, this will not change. 

Data is also critical to understanding the societal and cultural norms which facilitate violence against women. Take Ethiopia as an example - the largest African recipient of direct bilateral UK aid. Last year Demographic and Health Survey data showed that 20 per cent of Ethiopian women had suffered physical or sexual violence by their husbands in the last 12 months. Data concerning perceptions of domestic violence helps us understand how women themselves can rationalise and "accept" such violence. The No Ceilings project show that in 39 countries globally, more than half of women agreed that "burning food, refusing sex or arguing" were valid reasons for a husband to beat his wife. Understanding this psychological context is essential in developing effective educational policy.

In many circumstances, particularly in the developing world and in post-conflict environments, obtaining this data is incredibly difficult, requiring significant investment and huge cultural sensitivity. The DHS data is only available thanks to painstaking face-to-face data collection efforts - both extremely time and resource intensive. 

Researchers also have to ask the right questions. It is not easy. In many cultures there is no easy translation for "rape"; some women are unwilling to use the word voluntarily. More questions, sensitively, have to be asked. 

So there is so much more work to do. As a world leader in development aid, it should be an absolute priority of the British government to fund programmes and organisations that collect sex-disaggregated data - to target development funding exactly where it is needed. Britain should also encourage governments in receipt of its aid to ensure that their own economic development, health, education and social departments use this data to inform policy.

The UK government’s just-published Race Audit (although no new data was commissioned, it was at least collated) is a stark illustration of the hidden racial biases in almost every part of British life, from educational attainment to health outcomes. Now we know the scale of the disparities, we can act. We need the same approach for gender: If the UK Census completely omits a question on gender, our job is already made so much harder.

While not enough on its own, data can make the difference between creating effective and futile policy whether in relation to the unequal burden of unpaid care work in Britain or which conditions facilitate sexual assault in rural India. Without it, too many of the hidden, unequal economic costs and physical dangers faced disproportionally by women will remain just that - hidden 

Emily Benn was the Labour candidate for Croydon South in the 2015 general election