Costing the impacts of violence against women: six potential pitfalls

I recently attended an expert meeting in Lebanon to support the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Economic and Social Commission of Western Asia (ESCWA) to map out strategies, methods and tips for costing the impacts of violence against women (VAW) in the Arab region (and by ‘costing’ I mean calculating an equivalent of financial resources spent in addressing VAW).

The group included academics, activists, policy-makers and other assorted development folks, with the ultimate aim to develop a ‘step by step’ guide through which both ESCWA and UNFPA can support countries in the region to take the costing agenda forward.

The cost of VAW has increasingly been used as a tool to raise awareness and promote legislative and policy change across low, medium and high-income countries.  If any reminders are needed to justify this, using fairly rare data from the WHO (2013), over one third (37%) of women from the Eastern Mediterranean region have experienced physical or sexual violence from intimate partners at some point in their lives. Naturally, this in itself warrants action but unfortunately, a presentation of the associated costs is sometimes required, if not vital, to tip decision-makers and other actors into taking actions that aim to respond to or prevent VAW. For example, a costing study from Egypt in 2016 showed that costs amounting to 34.3 million USD were incurred to the economy as a result of partner violence in the past year alone. As a result of the research, reviews and investment into a number of VAW services were re-visited by the Egyptian government.

As discussions developed over the course of the next few days, I was surprised to hear the same old conundrums, challenges and debates emerging. Familiar as they may be to some, here are six quick reminders on the regular pitfalls that are encountered in building a costings study, and how to address them:

  1. Don’t chase higher costs: There is a temptation to enable the final cost figure to be as high as possible in the hope that this will shock everyone into sudden action. The argument here is that if costs prove to be low, then what would be the incentive to act? Of course, this position ignores two critical aspects – the cost of unmet needs (those turned away from services), as well as the would-be costs of those who are not reporting. If the latter figures can’t be obtained, it is no excuse to avoid a costing study.
  2. Definitions matter: Pinning down terminology hugely affects the final numbers. There were arguments that the term ‘marital’ violence might be more palatable in the region. Others, such as the Egypt study, looked across both public and private space using the broader term ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV). We covered ground relating to ‘intimate partner violence’ as well, but in the end, we settled on domestic violence (DV). The DV term is generally preferable because it covers other possible perpetrators – including parents, siblings, in-laws and other family members. Of course, it all depends on context and the data available.
  3. It takes years: As demonstrated by a participant from Denmark, the VAW costing process has been a lengthy one. Starting in the mid-70s, Denmark has only managed to systematise – every five years – a process of regular costing assessments. The main point here is that a costing exercise is a process, not an event. Hence, thought should be given to the development of skills and long-term support for forthcoming costing exercises.
  4. Follow the money to save money: not all studies routinely consider gender responsive budgeting as an entry point into costing studies. However, mapping national budgetary allocations to services, challenging as it often is, is a less cost-intensive method. Linking to the above point, if done collaboratively, it also strengthens national institutions and know-how so that the next costing study is likely to be more efficient and effective.
  5. Don’t forget the value for money (VfM): When designing a costing study, it seems the bottom line is often all about getting more money to invest in actions to prevent and respond to VAW. However, a fixation on ‘more’ can override the importance of ‘better’. For example, our own work at Itad on VfM demonstrates that there are multiple ways to think about making interventions more cost-effective that might make decision-makers stand up and listen. Therefore, costing studies should not overlook adding a VfM lens in the design phases.
  6. The private sector experiences costs too: the cost to business as a result of VAW can be hugely significant in terms of productivity shortfalls and other expenses. Despite this, a concentrated effort to unpack this issue on a nationally representative scale is yet to be undertaken. Even the basic idea of such a study and its potential value appears to be off the radar of practitioners and decision-makers, suggesting that there is an opportunity out there for the taking.

In summary, these are just six issues amongst many in the complex and challenging world of addressing violence against women. There are of course many more political, methodological, and presentational dimensions that are critical in designing and implementing an effective costings and/or value for money review. For further enquiries on these, take a look at some of the approaches and methods presented in the regional meeting here.

David Walker, October 2018