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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.

“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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”