April, 2016

Can the Statistics Speak?

Emphasising the importance of qualitative research methods while thinking about gender-based research and SDG5; the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality participates in a parallel session organised by Wellesley Centers for Women in March at CSW 60 in New York

By Shiv D Sharma

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held its sixtieth annual session at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 14th to March 24th 2016, with the representatives of UN Member States, civil society organisations and UN entities gathering in large numbers to think about this year’s priority theme of women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development. As one of the parallel sessions at CSW60, the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) organized a panel discussion on “The Power of Data: How Women- and Gender-Focused Research Organizations Can Advance SDG 5”. This is one of the many efforts by WCW to bring together scholars, researchers, and various organizations working on the issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment in different parts of the world to engage in the global dialogue of SDGs and share their experiences and research outcomes from their work. Representing the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, I was invited to speak as one of the panellists to discuss the topic using examples from the work going on in the Indian context. The other panelists were Senior Research Scientist- Linda M. Williams from Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative, WCW, Director of the Center for Research and Training in Gender and Family (CIGEF)- Clementina Furtado, University of Cape Verde, and Director of Learning, Evaluation, and Impact- PeiYao Chen, Global Fund for Women.


The deliberations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), introduced by the United Nations in 2015, have been gathering momentum around the world in the last one year. The SDG5 aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, targeting all forms of discrimination against women. The goal, then finds itself in conversation with the movement for rights of queer communities along with parallel efforts by the United Nations Development Programme towards transgender health and human rights. Even the feminists themselves have begun to think about the intersection of the transgender and LGBT movement with women’s rights movements around the world. Equally in India, the “third gender” was recognised as a category by the Supreme Court of India in 2014. That was followed by the first count of transgender population in India that was stated to be 4.9 lakh, received by activists and scholars working in the field with much apprehension. On the other hand, the government released a figure of 25 lakh for the count of gays in India in 2012.

As the idea of gender equality and minority rights is now partly but increasingly being expressed in the language of sustainable development goals, availability of data and its use is certainly becoming crucial. With the Supreme Court of India reinstating the ban on homosexuality in India by upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, one wonders whether this would have been different if the reported count of gays was a much bigger figure as is anticipated by many activists. While this data was obtained from the HIV/AIDS statistics obtained from NACO, and thus excludes several people who are not covered under the AIDS control programmes, it also puts forth the question of gender ratio: how affectively did we count lesbian women? To what extent could we cover sex workers? In the figures dealing with the count of transgenders, did we go beyond the Hijra communities, or people that could be visibly identified as the third gender?

Thus, every effort to think about the role of data-driven research in advancing gender equality must reflect upon the following: accuracy and efficacy of the data that we use, and ways in which data relevant to gender and sexuality issues can be better accessed, collected, and kept faithful to the social realities.

The first and the foremost question to be asked is whether numerical figures, however big or small, can speak for the rights of people- and what does that do to our sense of democracy? Should the recognition of rights of certain sections of the population be subservient to their representation in terms of a number? What purpose should a piece ofdata serve that attempts to selectively visiblize certain identities, and what exclusions does it create by not counting the others within that spectrum? The proceedings in the Supreme Court on Section 377 with its emphasis on the “acts” penalised under it rather than the identities that are most affected by the provision asks us to remind ourselves of the multi-layered subjectivity of data.

To facilitate the counter-majoritarian role it should serve, the process of data collection must include more Community Based Organizations (CBOs), activists and NGOs working directly with the target communities, as well as some representatives from the community itself. Every research  should reflect deeply upon the biases and limitations of its data before being disseminated in public; public sources that carry the data should also emphasise this. At the same time, we must attempt to find ways to reflect on the data that goes missing, such as the data on unreported cases in criminal records while analysing the impact of 377 or working on Gender Based Violence (GBV) prevention. This calls for taking seriously the qualitative data, without reducing it to figures in the analysis. It includes the attitudes surveys and interviews that have subjective-type responses, oral archives, and testimonies; all of them used to complement the quantitative data. In addition, the process of data collection needs to be people-sensitive such that the data collected can accurately reflect the respondent’s lived experience. The research methodologies employed by feminists, for example the seminal work on the history of violence during Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia, show us how we can improve our data-driven approaches to address gender issues.

Congregations that allow sharing of ideas as well as resources can certainly boost accessibility to the data being generated in different parts of the world and in bringing together people working on similar issues. Simultaneously, these spaces open up the possibility of thinking of these issues as global concerns, while keeping the unique perspectives from their local contexts. At CSW 60, it was delightful to see and interact with not just the speakers but audience members coming from various parts of the world, doing wonderful work. The WCW panel followed by an interesting round of Q&A. Some of the post-event questions and our response to them can be found here: http://www.wcwonline.org/News-Events-Extra-Information/questions-answers-the-power-of-data-2016

(Shiv D. Sharma is the Deputy Manager of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University.)


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