Recent estimates of sexual violence against women, widely reported in newspapers and magazines, include: 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence; 30% of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner; and, globally 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner These and other estimates are from a recent report by the World Health Organization, “Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence”; a report based on survey research; i.e., based on answers to questions. Consequently, the estimates are unreliable. When all you have are answers to questions, it’s impossible to know which, if any answers, are correct or incorrect. Answers to questions are made unreliable by all four components of the asking method: respondents, asking instruments, situations in which questions are asked and answers given, and askers themselves.
Here, I will comment only on respondents and asking instruments.
Respondents’ memory makes answers unreliable, and this is obviously the case for the estimates in this report which, as the authors write, “focuses on assessing women’s lifetime [my emphasis] exposure to physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner” (p. 10). (There are many other ways respondents make answers unreliable; e.g., they lie, don’t have relevant information, etc.)
Asking instruments–including number of questions in instrument, topic of questions, and, wording of questions–also make answers unreliable. Respondents faced with numerous questions about various topics (physical, violence, sexual, intimate, partner, non-partner, as well as other question topics; such as, “depression”, “abortion”, “anxiety”, and there are many others) give, research indicates, more inaccurate answers (as determined by evidence from non-asking sources, such as observation and records) than when questions are few in number and about less sensitive matters. (I discuss how all four components of survey research make answers unreliable in my book, The Problem with Survey Research.
We need to shift our focus from asking about violence against women to doing something about it! Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, calls for a “feminist revolution”. I, on the other hand, contend that sustained incremental changes in values/priorities via childhood upbringing and other forms of socialization, better/more accurate education, economic development, and other ways by which men–and women also–feel better about themselves and, thus, others, will reduce violence against women.