The status quo is unacceptable. Globally, one out of three women experiences violence in her lifetime. And this figure refers to non-conflict contexts. With the increasing number of women and girls affected by violent conflicts and displacement, the number of women and girls experiencing gender-based violence is increasing.
This September, the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by United Nations member states, including a dedicated goal on gender equality and specific targets to eliminate gender-based violence.
Next May, the World Humanitarian Summit will take place to reshape aid. A few weeks ago the synthesis report of the consultations for the WHS was published and it underlines the centrality of addressing gender-based violence. Both the SDGs and the World Humanitarian Summit Report call for innovation to end this global pandemic.
Given the complexity of gender-based violence and its main underlying cause — persisting gender inequalities — how can development and humanitarian actors innovate?
As a starter, let’s put the emphasis on the changes we want to achieve and not the “solutions” we create. A new way of addressing a problem or a new product is not per se innovative. Innovation is a novel approach that adds value to the user. Innovation is about creating tangible change and not about developing apps or websites.
Innovation in this context is less about creative ideas than about formulating a solid hypothesis that can be tested. Here are three entry points:
Start with the end
There is no sufficient evidence on what works in preventing and mitigating gender-based violence in low-income countries and crisis contexts. To improve policies and programs in the future, the design of GBV initiatives has to incorporate impact assessments, including the required funding.
Several organizations are addressing this evidence gap, for example the United Kingdom Department for International Development. The research and innovation fund What Works supports initiatives that seek effective pathways to address GBV. Next year, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund will launch a call for proposals and fund novel ways to combat GBV in emergencies. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is working with partners on impact assessments of several ongoing programs. This includes randomized control trials that go beyond qualitative evaluations. RCTs are certainly not a silver bullet but their potential to identify effective program interventions and policies is not yet sufficiently explored in development and humanitarian work on GBV.
Design thinking — or user-centered and human-centered design — has influenced development work over the past years particularly in the area of governance. User-centered design is the discipline to (co)-create solutions to problems or opportunities, where the design process is driven by the people using the solutions: their needs, desires and context.
Applying design principles to initiatives that address gender-based violence has the potential to improve the effectiveness of prevention and mitigation interventions. A starting point can be to systematically look for positive deviance. Identifying the positive outliers and their practices often requires research with anthropological methods. In Northern Uganda, for example, Save the Children invested in research to find out what girls and young women do to overcome the multiple challenges from abduction by the Lord Resistance Army. The work unearthed answers and led to interventions that are cost-effective. Usually, the practices of positive outliers are scalable.
Another entry point for design principles in GBV work is in the area of support services for survivors. Service journeys are based on interviews with a user of the service, in this case a survivor of gender-based violence. The journey identifies all the touchpoints with the service provider and the “points of pain,” the elements that cause dissatisfaction or worse. A number of such interviews usually unearth the patterns and identify what can be improved.
One “point of pain” can be the physical infrastructure of medical units or police stations. In Moldova, UNDP initiated a redesign of the infrastructure of a police station, led by citizens and the local police force.
Another element of design thinking is co-design. In Egypt, for example, UNDP works with local partners to address the problems related to reporting incidents of sexual violence. UNDP convened three Innovation Camps where over the course of three days Egyptian women and men developed testable prototypes. Together with Vodafone Foundation and the government, UNDP is now providing technical assistance to the teams developing these prototypes, which will be field-tested in parallel and assessed within a rather short time-frame
Embrace it: Women and men are complicated
In the past years, the acknowledgment that men and women, girls and boys, act and decide in ways that do not correspond with the models of many development plans has gained traction. The World Bank dedicated last year’s World Development Report on behavioral insights.
Governments in Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and others institutionalize small behavioral insights teams to improve policy making. Another example is UNDP’s work with the BIT in Moldova on nudging citizens to make better choices in their TB follow-up medical treatment.
Behavioral insights might also have a lot to offer GBV prevention work. So what messages work best to influence the behavior of men and boys in different contexts?
Too many GBV awareness-raising campaigns do not test different messages, let alone assess how the users interact with or perceive these messages. We know that the data available indicates that addressing social norms to prevent GBV is more effective than focusing on the individual and working with, for example, empathy messages. Strategies that borrow from marketing methods such as A/B testing can improve our insights on what works in prevention messaging.
Given the prevalence of gender-based violence across the globe, there is no alternative but to keep pushing ourselves to improve policies and programs.