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Why data matters to gender equality


Part of a series of articles on Solutions for Gender Equality

The law prohibits femicide — the deliberate murder of girls or women based on their gender — in more than 18 countries across Latin America. Elsewhere in the developing world, policies and laws also aim to curb female infanticide, so-called honour killings, and dowry murders. 

But according to Silvana Fumega, the research and policy director at the Latin American Institute for Open Data (ILDA), the way governments and institutions collect data on these murders can make a huge difference in understanding the extent of femicide — and finding ways to stop it.

“We need simple and clear protocols to understand what we are counting and when we are counting it,” Fumega said at an IDRC-sponsored panel discussion in Ottawa in November 2018. “You have the judiciary, the security forces, and the executive power, and we need to be clear about the owner [of these protocols], who is going to take responsibility.”

Standardization provides validity to the data collected on femicides. For example, using standard definitions across jurisdictions and collecting comparable data on perpetrators and the locations of killings provides accurate information for those devising ways to combat the crimes.

IDRC supports ILDA’s work on gender-based violence and other research that improves the visibility of women, girls, and their needs, in data collected around the world. The research challenges the power structures that contribute to women’s invisibility — discriminatory laws, practices, and social norms — to generate gender equal data. Once data exists, it can provide the evidence needed to break down structural barriers to gender equality. Fellow panelist Shaida Badiee, managing director of Open Data Watch, expressed this succinctly: “To get to gender equality, we need data equality.”

What is measured determines what is visible

“Data, data collection, and data interpretation and use are not neutral,” said Badiee in the November panel. She went on to explain that what a country chooses to measure affects what it can learn about a population or a topic. “Does a country’s data collection form allow women to be listed as heads of households? Does it collect data on ovarian and cervical cancer rates? What about teen pregnancy and the resulting births?” she asked.

“For us gender data is really data that measures the status and conditions of women,” Badiee said. How people use data — in what she describes as a data value chain — must increase the value of the data so it can have an impact on public policy.

To get to gender equality, we need data equality.

Shaida Badiee, managing director of Open Data Watch

The Centre of Excellence on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) Systems, a partnership with Open Data Watch housed at IDRC, describes a multitude of barriers and gaps that governments in developing countries need to address so that women and girls can be counted as unique human beings with specific needs.

CRVS systems collect data on death and its causes, births, marriages, and divorce. One of the many benefits of this data is that it provides access to documents, such as birth certificates, that can provide the necessary proof of legal identity for girls and women to gain access to health services, education, banking, and voter registration. It can also provide the means for women to claim property rights and inheritances.

Badiee also stressed the importance of making data available to those at the source. For example, sharing data on unpaid house and care work with communities helped people see how much more time girls were spending on this type of work compared to boys. This helped them discuss the effects on girls’ studies, participation in sports, and social life.

Open data for universal action

The openness of data — its availability to other organizations, governments, and people — can have a greater effect on policies and decisions because more actors can apply it toward achieving gender equality.

Fumega explained that there is a thirst for accurate data on femicide in Latin America, but the official registration system is not yet complete. “Civil society organizations, even individuals, are stepping in to fill the gap. In Mexico, there’s one single woman that has the most up-to-date database on femicide,” said Fumega. “She goes by the name Princesa, which is princess in English.”

Journalists write articles based on her data sets. Various legislatures looking to pass laws to reduce violence use her maps pinpointing cases reported in the media. But these stopgap measures will not match the power of official statistics once they are available.

We are working towards including gender, and not just binary sex, when producing and registering data.

Silvana Fumega, research and policy director at the Latin American Institute for Open Data

Fumega says official channels will need to exercise caution because transgender women may be missing from femicide statistics. This can occur if they were unable to obtain identification as a woman or were unable to opt for a gender choice other than male or female. “We are working towards including gender and not just binary sex when producing and registering data,” Fumega says.

“You also need to be careful about safety and privacy,” she cautions. “Open is not the opposite of private. It’s a complement, and you need safety protocols.” For example, if data isn’t carefully anonymized, then publishing data about safe houses could expose women who are fleeing violence and put them at risk.

Data to meet women’s health needs

Data equality also involves generating a complete picture of the services women and girls need.

Bangladesh is using data in an innovative way to help manage the health services available to the growing number of marginalized women and girls in urban areas. The national health system was designed to provide services in rural areas, but with 35% of Bangladeshis now living in urban areas, it is struggling to deliver equitable services across all regions. Maternal, child, and adolescent-girl health tends to suffer most because millions of women and girls have migrated to cities to work in textile and garment factories.

“By the time the urban poor return from work [at the end of the day], most government primary health facilities are closed, so they end up turning to the informal sector,” said Sohana Shafique, a lead researcher at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) at the panel discussion.

To achieve universal health coverage, we need a complete picture of all who are seeking care.

Sohana Shafique, assistant scientist and deputy program coordinator, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh

Urban women turn to health centres run by non-profits and private owners and pharmacies. These facilities offer few services, have limited ability to refer patients to more specialized levels of care, and operate outside of the national health management information systems, Shafique explains.

With support from IDRC, icddr,b developed the Urban Health Atlas to provide geo-referenced data on the services offered to women and girls in major Bangladeshi cities. The interactive online atlas aims to provide health managers with the data they need to redistribute services, particularly in the vital area of maternal and child health. This important step toward universal health coverage helps the country improve health services planning, referrals, and oversight in urban Bangladesh.

Coherent data systems

The fragmented ownership of data is a key challenge in any attempt to generate and use data for evidence-based policymaking. Badiee is encouraged by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide a framework to support national data gathering. With 193 countries committed to the SDGs, Badiee is convinced that with adequate funding, the data gaps that have long hidden women and girls from plain view can be closed. “Many of these agencies that never talked to each other are coming together now,” she says.

Silvana Fumega, Shaida Badiee, and Sohana Shafique were panelists in the “Solutions for Gender Equality” speaker series. They spoke at the panel discussion “Who Counts, Who Matters? Making Data and Data Systems Work for Women and Girls” on November 22, 2018 in Ottawa, Canada. The speaker series builds a narrative of IDRC’s efforts to support gender equality globally leading up to Women Deliver 2019, an international conference on gender equality in Vancouver, from June 3-6, 2019.