Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How To Read Reports: The New Unicef Report On Violence Against Children

I learned about this new report at Think Progress:

One in ten girls has been sexually assaulted. Six in ten children are regularly beaten by their caregivers. Half of all girls between the ages of 15 and 19 believe a man is “justified” in hitting his wife. Nearly one in five homicide victims are children.
Those are just a few of the findings in a new report from UNICEF that details the “shocking prevalence” of violence and abuse against children around the world. The study — which represents the largest-ever compilation of information on the scope of child abuse — draws on data from 190 countries, and concludes this type of violence has been so normalized that many children are growing up with the assumption it’s just the way the world is supposed to work.
The report has important information.  It tells us where homicide of children (and especially of boys) is common, for example.  That would be in the Caribbean and Latin America.  This should be viewed against the background of high homicide rates in that area in general.  The report tells us that this relatively small area is responsible for 32% of all homicides on this planet (though I'm not sure how the planet is defined here), and speculates that the reasons are in criminal gang activity and the wide availability of firearms.  It's of interest to note that ten countries account for more than one half of all child homicide victims, with Nigeria leading by a wide margin, followed by Brazil, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The United States gets to be included among those ten countries, too, even though it's pretty different in economic and power terms.

So one lesson the report teaches us is that children are not immune from the general levels of violence in an area.  And neither are children immune from the cultural and religious beliefs of their demographic groups.  Thus, the quoted figure of almost half of all girls (44%) between the ages of 15 and 19 believing that a man is justified in hitting his wife (if she burns his dinner, if she neglects the children, if she goes out without his permission etc.) is because that's what the cultures of the interviewed girls believe.  And the boys have similar beliefs, on average, though in several countries the percentage of girls who believe in the husband being entitled to beat the wife is higher than the percentage of boys who believe the same thing.

But here's where I got a bit worried about the report:  Several of its tables quote data separately for various areas and then for the whole world.  The thing is, the underlying data does not cover most of Europe (it does cover Eastern Europe) and neither does it cover the United States or Canada (or Russia, I think).  That's because the data predominantly comes from lower-income countries:

Given the general lack of uniformity in the way data on violence against children are collected, this report relies mainly on information gathered through internationally comparable sources, including the UNICEF-supported Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), the US Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), the Global School-based Student Health Surveys (GSHS) and the Health behaviour in School-aged Children Study (HbSC).

These international survey programmes have been almost exclusively implemented in low- and middle-income countries (with the exception of the HbSC).

So while the focus of this report is largely on these countries, this should in no way be interpreted to suggest that violence against children is not found in high-income nations.
To that end, the report also uses country-specific facts or evidence derived from small-scale studies and national surveys to shed light on certain aspects or circumstances from a variety of countries for which representative or comparable data are unavailable.
The omission of most of the high-income countries doesn't make what is included any less important.  But it does mean that we cannot interpret the averages in the report as pertaining to the world.  The "world" includes all countries, and the views on, say, how justified husbands are to beat their wives are unlikely to be exactly the same in Europe and North America as they are, say, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The speed with which journalists are now forced to work is probably behind the fact that I've recently spotted a lot of similar problems in published reports or discussions of reports (such as the Rotherham one on child sexual exploitation).  If all you have time to look at is the press release, the press release better be a very good one.  In this case the report itself seems to equate the concept of world with the countries included in the report.  That would not be a problem if the omitted countries were, on average, like the included countries.  But they are not .

Added later:  Why would this minor thing bother me so much that I wrote about it?  Because the more the speed of news delivery increases the more the audience will be left with false or at least somewhat misleading information.  That's not what information dissemination is supposed to do.