/ 4 October 2019

Stats paint a distorted picture of violence against women

One in three women will be sexually attacked. Two in five are beaten by their partners. Half will be sexually harassed at work. One in 15 murdered by their partner.
Research shows that starting sex education at a young age can decrease the number of gender-based violence cases and teenage pregnancies. (Oupa Nkosi)




The statistics are like an endless pit-toilet of horrifying numbers. One in three women will be sexually attacked. Two in five are beaten by their partners. Half will be sexually harassed at work. One in 15 murdered by their partner. The numbers vary according to each piece of research, but they are all equally disturbing.

They also have another thing in common. The statistics are always based on the proportion of women who are beaten, raped or abused and never on the proportion of men who perpetrate these horrors.

The beating, assaults and abuse are not something that just happens to women, yet that’s how the stats make it seem.

They are presented as if these crimes are like bad weather or an earthquake in Uzbekistan — something that just happens, rather than something that is done.

Why don’t the statistics report that two in five men physically abuse their partners? Why don’t they report the proportion of men who are rapists? Or the percentage of men who sexually harass their colleagues?

Somehow the numbers have more heft when reported that way. Because a finger is pointed. Guilt is apportioned.

We don’t report statistics about drunk driving in the same way that stats about abused women are reported. We don’t say that one in five cars will be driven by a drunk driver at some point. We point out the percentage of people who drive after drinking.

It’s almost as if by reporting gender violence statistics in the way they are, we are reflecting an underlying acceptance that this is what men do. That somehow women are, if not to blame, at least partially complicit in what happens to them. How far is this from saying that a woman was “asking for it” by wearing a short skirt?

The only other evasion of guilt through statistics that is any way comparable is the Holocaust. For decades the phrase flung around was that six million Jews had died in the Holocaust. It’s as if it was the Holocaust that did it. The whole thing a diabolical scheme cooked up by that darn Holocaust, thus avoiding the awkward issue of guilt.

The “Holocaust” didn’t do it, any more than “domestic violence” or “spousal abuse” did it.

People do these things, not vague sociological terms. A phrase can’t throw someone down the stairs and break three of their ribs anymore than a phrase can gas six million Jews.

It was only when Germany and academia together started examining the involvement and culpability of the perpetrators that the conversation about the Holocaust became an honest one.

In the same way, if we are at any point going to get serious about gender violence then the focus has to be shifted to men, rather than remain on women. Because it is men who actually do the beating, raping and abusing. It is not something that just happens.

These are conscious acts carried out by specific people who are morally culpable for what they do.

So although academia and the media can do very little to halt the ocean of horrors daily unleashed on people who happen to be women, what they can do is start reporting statistics in a way that puts the spotlight on the perpetrators rather than the victims.

John Davenport is the chief creative officer at Havas advertising agency. These are his own views