Dangerous polls and irresponsible reporting
The Thomson Reuters Foundation needs to devote its resources to empirical research on women’s issues based on sound, rigorous methodology
On 26 June 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released the results of a perception poll that declared India to be the most dangerous country in the world for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
The rankings were based on the perception of 584 experts focused on women’s issues. The foundation decided to evaluate the situation by analysing the risks faced by women in diverse categories, including healthcare, cultural, tribal, religious or customary practices, and various forms of sexual violence, and see if there had been any change from a similar survey conducted in 2011, which ranked India as the fourth most dangerous country (with Afghanistan being the most dangerous).
The poll, utterly bereft of nuance and riddled with bias, has set off a chain of reactions across the country and abroad. Many activists have welcomed the study, while the Union government has rejected it and its methodology, expressing umbrage at being pegged lower than Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Requests (including mine) to the foundation for the data set and clarity on the experts involved were met with a stock statement.
According to the statement, perception polls are meant to complement official data, relying on the opinions of experts and the “methodology” of the survey: “We asked respondents to name the five most dangerous countries from the 193 United Nations member states. We then asked them to name the worst country in each of the following six categories.”
We do not know the formula used to calculate the ranks as the foundation states it is proprietary. We do not know who the experts are. We do know, however, that the questions asked of the experts are vague and general, with broad-based and often sweeping buckets of issues, clubbed under six generic categories.
If the intention of the foundation was to complement official data, it has failed abysmally. The results tell us nothing specific about the ground realities in India or the other countries, except that some experts think that India, for instance, is the most dangerous country in terms of cultural traditions.
The specific question asked of experts under this heading is: “In your view, what is the most dangerous country in the world for women in terms of cultural, tribal and religious traditions or customary practices? This includes acid attacks, female genital mutilation, child marriage; forced marriage, stoning, physical abuse or mutilation as a form of punishment/retribution and female infanticide.”
Each of these words has different connotations. Cultural traditions are different from tribal ones and those are different from religious ones. Acid attacks that have been clubbed with these are not a “cultural tradition”. The clubbing of issues shows a marked lack of understanding and gives an inkling of a white saviour complex.
The results, and the sensationalist reporting surrounding them, show how dangerous it is to make absolutist statements based solely on the result of a poorly-designed and inherently biased perception poll. Such polls do not reflect the reality and they rarely help find solutions to complex issues. What they can do is spur governments and civil society into action by showcasing the urgency of a situation.
The Union government’s rejection of the study shows the opposite—Indians are scrambling to point out that it is ludicrous that India is considered more dangerous than countries ranked below it, with the acting chairperson of the National Commission for Women stating that “the countries that have been ranked after India have women who are not even allowed to speak in public”.
The irony is not lost in India, where the intersections of class, caste, geography, colour, religion, profession and other identities with gender produce a multitude of dangerous situations for women. While the Union government has made some important strides in this direction, there is a lot to be done. People in public office, and society at large, must be stopped from victim-blaming and shaming, and police and judicial officers must be trained to respond effectively and sensitively to complaints of sexual violence. There are enough ways to tackle the issue—claiming that we are not as bad as Syria is not one of them.
The foundation needs to devote its resources to empirical research based on sound, rigorous methodology, with an intent to find solutions. What the poll does is to reduce this issue to a vacuous ranking dripping with biases, with information that cannot be used for action.
While India was right to dismiss this poll, it is also trying to prove that we are shining in comparison, when it should be acknowledging the absolute seriousness of the issue and applying its mind to find solutions.
This is not a competition.
Children and people are being raped and killed all around the world. We live in a hyper-masculine, patriarchal society where gender norms and gender roles abound, and our bodies are sexualized before we know it. This happens across cultures, across nations, across borders. This is a global, universal issue and countries must join hands in trying to find solutions. By refusing to acknowledge this, we are refusing to acknowledge the lived realities of millions of people around the world.
Urmila Pullat is a lawyer who runs the India desk for the Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong), and is also the founder-editor of the How Revealing website, an online repository of experiences of gender-based violence.
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