The Big Idea: A Voice For Women And Girls

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2017
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Lindsay Stark ’10PH, an associate professor of population and family health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, studies gender-based violence in war zones, refugee camps, and other humanitarian settings. We spoke to her recently about the surprising insights uncovered by her new research.


Columbia Magazine: In what parts of the world do you work?
Lindsay Stark:
In recent years, my team has worked with refugee populations in Ethiopia and Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of people have fled to escape fighting in nearby countries, and in Indonesia, where tens of thousands have been displaced by floods and other natural disasters. We’ve also done a lot of work in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, looking at communities that have been devastated by those countries’ civil wars.


What kind of issues are you studying?
We want to know: are women and girls in these types of chaotic environments more likely to experience gender-based violence? If so, what can be done to prevent this? And what can be done to help survivors recover? Very little research has been done on these topics among refugee populations.


Why is that?
In part because it’s difficult to get funding to do research of any kind in emergency settings. Donors who fund international relief efforts have historically tended to put their money toward food, medicine, shelter, and other basic necessities rather than studies. Most of the research that has been done is focused on improving nutrition and controlling the spread of infectious disease, not addressing women’s issues.


Describe a typical day in the field.
In every place we work, we collaborate with local researchers, often from the affected population. With their help, we ask women and girls about their hopes and needs, their overall well-being, and their experiences of violence. In some settings, this can be quite a challenge. In the refugee camps in Ethiopia, for example, people speak dozens of different languages. It’s difficult to find literate women who can serve as researchers or translators. It’s also challenging to create an environment where women and girls can talk openly about such intimate matters as sexual violence. Many of them come from societies where they are likely to be stigmatized or even punished for being sexually assaulted. So there are very real reasons why they may not want to talk to us.


You’ve tried some novel strategies to get them to open up.
Yes, we recently conducted a study in Ethiopia and the Congo, with 1,300 girls aged ten to nineteen, to compare two strategies. We started with an approach that NGOs often use when doing a needs assessment: we spoke to women and girls in small groups and asked them to describe any patterns of abuse that were occurring, without telling us about specific incidents. The information we gathered this way confirmed a lot of traditional thinking. Most notably, we heard that sexual violence was a pervasive problem and mostly perpetrated by police, soldiers, or strangers in the community.

But then we interviewed the same girls using a new approach: we had them self-administer surveys by listening to audio recordings of multiple-choice questions and entering their answers on electronic tablets. Since a lot of the girls were illiterate, the answers were color-coded, with the audio recording instructing them which colors corresponded to the answers. We hoped that the privacy afforded by the tablet would embolden the girls to open up. And it worked.


What did you discover?
Well, first, we found that the number of girls who had experienced violence was much larger than anyone had previously realized. More than one in four said they’d been sexually assaulted or raped in the previous year, while one in three said they’d been beaten. The victims were also surprisingly young: many ten-year-olds said they’d been sexually assaulted.

Another surprise was the perpetrators. Whereas most of the girls who participated in our group conversations told us that strangers were the ones who routinely hurt women and girls, more than 85 percent of those who took the self-administered survey said that they were hurt by someone close to them. Typically, this was a boyfriend, husband, father, or other close family member. The shift was so dramatic that at first we thought something was wrong with our data. But the change we saw in the girls’ responses was nearly identical in both locations — the refugee camps in Ethiopia and in the Congo. Our finding was no fluke.


Why do you think girls in the group conversations had concealed who was hurting them?
I think it’s partly because it’s more socially acceptable to talk about violence that is perpetrated by strangers. If you say that a relative attacked you, the risk of stigmatization or retaliation is often higher. Imagine if the person you accuse is the patriarch and main breadwinner. Getting him in trouble could jeopardize the economic well-being of your entire family. It’s probably a lot safer to say you were beaten up or raped by some random soldier.

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