Violence against women harms us all: will measuring the pain help prevent it?

May 26 2016 Posted: 13:09 IST

Despite the recognition that violence against women (VAW) is a global health emergency – one in three women and girls experience violence at least once in their life from the age of 15 – it has not inspired action by governments.


At an individual level, violence immediately affects the health of a woman or girl. The mental and physical health effects can lead to poor earnings, employment instability, and low productivity; they can also result in women being unable to undertake household tasks, like cooking or bringing her children to school, which in turn affects the wellbeing of her children and extended family. These impacts, over a lifetime, reflect a loss of human potential for the individual, her community and the society and economy.

My work is on measuring the impacts to prove the suffering reaches much further than the individual victims, survivors and perpetrators.

Some of these impacts can be monetised, such as the cost of seeking healthcare for injuries, and we can easily count these as economic costs. However, this is the tip of the iceberg. Capturing the cost of pain, or the long-term impact on capabilities and potential, is far more difficult, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. It is necessary to look at the costs to families and informal networks, to businesses small and large, and at the ways all of these costs multiply and affect societies over time.

Studies in the global south demonstrate that violence imposes burdens on the informal systems of family, kinship, and community networks. A recent study in Egypt found that the most significant economic impacts are the loss of unpaid care work, the burden placed on families to provide refuge for the woman/girl, and the costs to a family of providing protection for women in the public space.

This shows that the greatest costs of violence against women are absorbed by informal institutions and thus remain invisible to governments and planners, while placing a significant strain on families, communities and societies.          

Meanwhile, in countries where women’s labour force participation rates are high, costing studies show that violence primarily influences absenteeism and productivity loss in the workplace. For example, a study I undertook in Vietnam showed the productivity loss to be equivalent to 1.79% of 2011 GDP. A 2014 study in Peru (pdf) on the costs to businesses estimated that overall 70m workdays (equivalent to about 230,000 full-time jobs) were lost in a year due to the impacts of violence on women’s and men’s absenteeism and presenteeism (being late, leaving early, not concentrating).

We are currently looking at ways, through the UK’s Department for International Development What Works programme, to generate new data on the scale of the cost of VAW and provide basic benchmark data to monitor effectiveness of efforts to address violence. The global What Works programme is also testing ways of preventing violence as well as measuring cost effectiveness to make the rigorous case for investment priorities in promising interventions.

The effectiveness of economic empowerment programmes, poverty reduction programmes and others working to address inequality depend on the efforts to combat VAW, which is at the core of the economic and social challenges of our times.

We hope that our evidence will translate into systemic action at national and international levels.