How Better Data Can Reduce Domestic Violence

One in four women reports having been a victim of severe physical violence by a current or former partner. One in ten reports having been raped by an intimate partner. And nearly one in two women has experienced some form of psychological aggression from an intimate partner, according to the latest national data. Between 1994—when the Violence Against Women Act was first passed—and 2011, the rate of serious intimate partner violence declined from 5.9 victimizations per 1,000 women to 1.6 per 1,000. Still, far too many women are victims of these crimes.

While research has shed light on the prevalence of intimate partner violence (perpetrated by a current or former partner) and domestic violence (perpetrated at home by partners or other family members), the information is incomplete. In particular, we lack data on diverse and marginalized populations—such as the Asian–Pacific Islander, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities—who often face multiple barriers to disclosing abuse and accessing help.

Better data about the proportion of these groups being victimized and the experiences they are having could help service providers reach these groups, better meet their needs, and ultimately reduce domestic violence. Culturally sensitive data collection could be a large step forward.

Abuse takes many forms and has many effects on victims

Abuse from intimate partners doesn’t start in adulthood. Nationwide, about 1 in 10 high school students reports experiencing some form of violence from a dating partner in the past 12 months. An Urban Institute study of 10 northeastern middle and high schools found much higher rates, with 1 in 4 dating teens reporting harassment and abuse online and through texts. New technologies have made it easier for abusers to degrade, humiliate, control, and stalk their partners.

Intimate partner and domestic violence at any age can have devastating consequences for survivors’ health and well-being. Studies have shown that victims are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, use harmful substances (like tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs), engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors, and experience depression and anxiety.

Evidence also reveals that violence and abuse manifest themselves in many ways. Some domestic and intimate partner violence involves psychological control and physical violence, some involves violence without coercion, and some involves only psychological abuse and coercion. The definitions of domestic and intimate partner violence that frame surveys and other studies are narrow—for example, just asking about physical violence—and tend to miss the realities of many survivors and their families.

We need to learn more about the many ways this type of violence can take place and the context in which it can occur, so we can identify how best to meet particular survivors’ needs.

Victim characteristics play a role, particularly among marginalized groups

Victims’ characteristics—their race and ethnicity, religion, class, English proficiency, age, sexuality, and gender—can shape how they are affected by the abuse. Capturing accurate data about such violence in diverse and marginalized populations requires culturally sensitive tools and strategies.

Take, for example, Asian–Pacific Islander (API) communities. The effects of domestic and intimate partner violence are intensified in API communities, where such issues are stigmatized and seen as private family matters because of cultural norms. For example, although 41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetimes, many are too afraid or ashamed to discuss what they are experiencing. They fear shaming their families or communities by disclosing that they are being abused.

Social, economic, cultural, and linguistic isolation make API survivors some of the most marginalized and challenging populations to serve. Many Asian victims will neither disclose that they have been abused nor seek or accept help from strangers, making it even more difficult to gather accurate data about the prevalence of domestic and intimate partner violence among APIs. To break through the multiple barriers preventing these victims from disclosing abuse and accessing services, service providers and researchers must invest considerable time establishing trusted relationships with victims and their communities. Additionally, service providers and researchers must bear in mind that the pan-Asian community is not monolithic. It comprises diverse cultures, each requiring distinct engagement efforts.

API survivors often have a difficult time accessing services because of cultural and linguistic differences with service providers, immigration status challenges, poverty, and other structural inequalities. The language barrier for API victims with limited English proficiency can prevent them from calling the police, obtaining a life-saving protection order through the courts, participating in criminal actions against an abuser, receiving urgent medical treatment, and seeking shelter or other assistance. If a victim’s immigration status is dependent on the abuser he or she may fear deportation if the abuse is revealed.

Also, certain API subgroups are more likely to be low income, and poverty can exacerbate the barriers victims face. Some may be financially dependent on their abusers, making it difficult to leave abusive situations.

Guidelines for cultural translation can improve data collection

To highlight the lack of reliable and quality data about domestic and intimate partner violence and suggest a way forward, the Urban Institute held a data dive on November 1 with the nonprofit Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project and the data platform company Socrata. Technologists, policymakers, researchers, analysts, and service providers aimed to better understand the biases and shortcomings in existing data and suggest ways to improve data collection practices for diverse and marginalized groups.

Based on dozens of real-world examples, the data dive participants raised concerns about expecting a similar understanding of survey questions and similar responses from different populations. For example, some populations are unlikely to answer many of the common survey questions regarding domestic and intimate partner violence, even if translated into their primary language. Some populations are more likely to give nonverbal responses. Others are more likely to willingly participate in surveys if the interviewer’s cultural characteristics are concordant with their own. The group concluded that an inflexible approach would not measure the intended aspects of domestic and intimate partner violence across all groups.

Data collection practices could be improved, participants agreed, with guidelines for cultural translation in all aspects of research on domestic and intimate partner violence in diverse communities. Cultural translation would be used to adapt research methods to the particular needs of different and marginalized cultures. Those guidelines would include recommendations for the following:

  • How data are collected. Is the door to the interview room open or closed? Is the respondent’s back to the door? Are men in the building when a woman is being interviewed?
  • How interviewers are trained to ask questions about domestic and intimate partner violence.
  • How to achieve concordance (that is, to ensure an appropriate match) between the interviewer and respondent on cultural and demographic characteristics, such as language, accent, race, ethnicity, origin, age, sex, and religion.
  • How wording (or translation) of a survey question can and should be replaced with culturally specific wording that still accurately measures the conceptual construct.
  • How the wording (or translation) of survey responses can and should be replaced with culturally specific responses, including guidelines for coding nonverbal responses.

The data dive participants agreed that more research is needed, particularly in developing cultural translation that produces findings that are comparable across groups and can be “rolled up” into aggregate metrics. This process can start with qualitative studies that examine how domestic and intimate partner violence is experienced in various contexts and real-world situations.

Domestic and intimate partner violence continue to plague our society. We need a better and deeper understanding of who is affected and how before we can properly and adequately address ways to prevent such violence and meet victims’ needs.

About this project

Lisa Clemans-Cope is a senior research associate in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Erwin de Leon is a research associate in Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. Fiona Oliphant is survivor services program manager for the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project. Janine Zweig is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Photo from Shutterstock

Copyright Urban Institute 2014