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The news media’s reporting on a pandemic spike in violence against women. It might actually be declining.

Here’s what we know from the research.

FILE -- Women police officers stand in the shade near the Angel of Independence monument, protected by a wall that has been decorated with feminist art and the slogan "Feminicidal Mexico," ahead of the start of a march protesting violence against women in Mexico City, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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Over the past weeks, news stories have reported increased calls to domestic violence hotlines around the world.]] The United Nations Secretary General called for action against a “horrifying global surge” in gender violence. But does an increase in reporting mean that violence against women has increased?

Researchers don’t know. Clearly, the covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating some factors that can increase the likelihood of gender and sexual violence in the short term, including job loss, trauma, and alcohol abuse. But people who study violence generally document the prevalence of violence through surveys that involve asking women specific questions, ideally during private interviews. Without those, we can’t be sure what those hotline and police calls tell us, as they may bear little relation to levels of violence. In New York City, for example, reports of domestic violence have dropped during the pandemic, even as arrests and police calls in the rest of New York state and other parts of the country have risen.

In fact, increases in reporting usually mean more women feel they can seek help, not more violence. Almost everywhere, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and other crimes against women are under-reported. When we see more women reporting, that usually points to legal and cultural changes that make women feel safer coming forward.

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A great deal of violence against women is driven by gender inequality

Violence against women encompasses many different behaviors including intimate partner violence, sexual assault and rape, human trafficking, femicides and honor killings, female genital mutilation, and more. Intimate partner abuse, however, is the most common form of violence against women.

Men attack women for reasons beyond whatever they may say at the time. Some structural and contextual causes include inequalities in wealth and power between men and women; cultural support for male dominance and men’s right to punish women; and individual men’s personal histories of aggression, alcoholism, and as victims of abuse or trauma themselves.

For instance, studies from a number of countries show that when women have access to resources that enable them to support themselves — plots of land, steady jobs, or help from such social policies as child care and paid family leave — they are better able to leave abusers and can bargain for more equitable treatment.

Prevailing social norms also shape the likelihood of violence. Across the world, places where people value male authority over women and men’s sexual entitlement tend to see higher rates of violence, including domestic abuse and rape.

In other words, violence against women grows from a larger cultural context, not just temporary circumstances like the covid-19 pandemic. But such short-term factors are particularly likely to increase violence in areas where public attitudes already accept gender-related abuse.

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Most of the world is outlawing gender violence

Since the 1990s, scores of countries have acted to combat violence against women. After 1993, when the U.N. endorsed the idea that violence against women violates human rights, more countries enacted extensive legal and policy reforms to prevent violence, punish perpetrators, and help victims.

Of course, not every country is on board, as you can see in the figure below. Russia, parts of central and west Africa, and parts of the Middle East and North Africa have ignored the reforms that spread elsewhere, probably because they lack the strong feminist movements that pushed other countries to change their laws.

What’s more, world attitudes toward domestic violence, the type of violence we have most data about, have changed. Surveys across the world show that the share of people who consider intimate partner violence acceptable keeps dropping. Our own research on Mexico finds that the share of women who endorse men’s right to control women declined sharply between 2003 and 2011, as you can see in the figure below.

Reporting and talking about violence strengthens norms condemning violence

Few women who suffer sexual and physical gender-based violence report it to police, health care workers, or social services. Analysis of demographic and health surveys from 24 countries reveal that victims’ reporting rates range from two to 14 percent, with a global average of seven percent.

When a society accepts violence against women, no one talks about it. Women have little incentive to speak out, as those who do are often blamed, shamed, and ostracized; they rarely get support, let alone justice.

As recently as 2016, police in India refused to file incident reports after rape victims sought help, and elected officials, judges, and health care workers blamed victims for being attacked. Women interviewed in Mexico in 2005 and 2006 said that police officers recommended that they have sex with their abusive partners to improve the relationship. Between the 1980s and 2000s, growth in reported rapes across 25 European countries was usually not accompanied by an increase in convictions.

But across 30 wealthy countries, reports of sexual assault and harassment to police grew after 2017, the year of #MeToo. In other words, women’s willingness to speak out suggests that social attitudes have changed.

Our analysis of data from Mexico shows that women’s tendency to report physical domestic violence has grown significantly over two decades. Before the country passed a 2007 federal law declaring that women had the right to lives free from violence, only 8 to 9 percent of female victims of physical domestic abuse said they reported it to authorities. By 2016, this grew to 18 percent.

Violence may actually be declining

Growing reports of violence suggest that conditions fostering violence against women may be declining, not increasing, across much of the world. The Mexican data we have analyzed show that the share of women who suffered severe domestic abuse in the year preceding the survey dropped from 13 percent in 2006, the year before the 2007 federal gender violence law, to eight percent in 2011 and 2016. This implies that across Mexico, approximately 1.5 million fewer women were physically abused by their partners every year after the law was passed.

We will not know for a while whether or not the covid-19 pandemic has increased violence against women. What’s most important is the general rise in reporting and governments’ greater willingness to support women in crisis.

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Mala Htun (@malahtun) is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and author (with S. Laurel Weldon) of The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on Women’s Rights Around the World (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Francesca R. Jensenius (@fr_jensenius) is professor of political science at the University of Oslo, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and author of Social Justice through Inclusion: The Consequences of Electoral Quotas in India (Oxford University Press, 2017).