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Counting bodies - what a focus on violence statistics conceals

Feminist Perspectives
Andrea Espinoza Carvajal

PhD Student in the Department of International Development

03 November 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of keeping track of numbers. The number of infected per day, the number of people in hospital beds, and the number of deaths because of the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of keeping track of numbers. The number of infected per day, the number of people in hospital beds, and the number of deaths because of the virus. Statistics provide a comprehensive portrait of the most current situation and are used as evidence to inform emergent policies. Bodies are key to our understanding of the disease, and the task of counting them seems relevant and necessary. However, counting is not enough. The body, as evidence, reveals a final and undesirable outcome. In the case of the spread of COVID-19, it shows that there is an infection, and in consequence, the body of a person becomes the body of a patient. The body as evidence is a failure of the system that was supposed to prevent it from harm. That same premise holds true when thinking about the much older pandemic, that is the violence against women (VAW). In the case of VAW as well, the body of a victim – registered by the health system, the justice system, or by other social services – is evidence of a system that failed to recognise the spread of the disease, the burden of its symptoms, and the virality of its reproduction through society. Moreover, it might be the evidence of an even more damaging approach, one that recognised the problem but failed to provide preventive policies or further support.

The setting created by the pandemic – the lockdowns, isolation, restriction of movement – has had the consequence of intensifying violence against women, especially domestic violence. As a result, the numbers counting the spread of this epidemic have gone up,1 prompting the need to rethink the meaning of the statistics that demonstrate the extent of the problem. The rising numbers of calls to the emergency services, the number of women going to shelters, the number of women reporting their cases to the police or the justice system offer an overview based on the bodies already in pain. Violence has already been inflicted; the tally counts victims of abuse. With a focus on the tally what remains invisible is the environment which was conducive to violence to be inflicted upon bodies, the embodied experience of women before and after the abuse, and the responsibility of the perpetrator. A focus on the numbers makes valuable information invisible and pushes such information to irrelevance.

A focus on the numbers locates the problem on the body and corporeal harm, shifting the attention from the normalised violence that shapes and affects women’s lives. The increased episodes of VAW calls for a more insightful perspective that accounts for the embodied experience of women before and after the violence has occurred. As highlighted by Cecilia Menjívar (2011), it is pressing to ‘call attention to the structures, cognitive frameworks, internalised dispositions, and ideologies that make these individual acts [VAW] possible, tolerated, and accepted’2. By locating the focus of research in women's embodied experience, there is the possibility to understand better the environment that is conducive to the infliction of corporeal harm. In contrast, by setting the analytical gaze on the final fragment of the experience of abuse, we encounter a stance that neglects lived reality, and lose what could be revealed by understanding ‘how power, history, and gender operate through embodied subjectivity and concrete bodily activity’3.

The lack of understanding or the refusal to understand women’s gendered and embodied experiences has tangible and damaging effects on the interventions of the state, international organisations, and NGOs when dealing with VAW. The latest example is the way countries around the world managed VAW during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reactive strategies became activated as soon as the media started to count bodies, either the bodies of battered women or the victims of feminicide. As an estimate, two weeks after the lockdowns started, national media outlets – in most countries – began reporting on the increase of incidents of VAW and feminicides. As the number of victims started to pile up, the measures to confront the problem started to emerge, ranging from providing strategies to survive abuse while locked at home with the aggressor to procedures to report violence online. As the media started to share horrifying experiences of being locked with an aggressor, a question emerged: If it is well known that intimate partner violence is one of the most frequently perpetrated types of violence, why did no one account for the possibility of an increase of violence against women during the peak of the pandemic? While feminist scholars and activist raised the alarm, the multiple calls for earlier interventions were not heard until the hurt bodies appeared as evidence of a problem. As it usually happens, recognising that women’s experience is marked by unequal power dynamics and the systematic subordination of women provided by gender norms, was not on the agenda.

Reactive policies are not new. On the contrary, they are very common and are at the core of the strategies to confront VAW. States, international organisations, and NGOs plan their strategies around crimes that have already been committed. Two big strategies to confront VAW follow this trend: increasing women’s capacity to report violence to the police and tightening the laws that punish VAW. In Latin America, for instance, the Women’s Police Stations (WPS) or Comisarías de las Mujer [in Spanish] started to appear since 1985, when the first WPS was inaugurated in Brazil4 and, since the mid-1990s, countries in the region began publishing laws that recognised and criminalised domestic violence and violence against women.5 Both the institutions and the laws have changed and expanded their capacities in the last 35 years; however, regrettably, VAW is still very present in the region. According to the Pan American Health Organization, in all 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries, large percentages of women ever married or in union reported ever experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, ranging from 17.0% in the Dominican Republic 2007 to slightly more than half (53.3%) in Bolivia 2003. Women’s lived experience is not the target of the policies; women bodies are, because they bear evidence of the harm.

Focusing on the body as an element that provides evidence is to take a look at the final part of the experience of abuse. In that sense, the practice of counting harmed bodies contributes to the narrative that violence against women is a part of life that can and needs to stop, but that is so normalised that could hardly be prevented because it is ordinary. Following the logic inherited from the pandemic, what do we get from counting the bodies of the infected and deceased? A broad picture to understand the extent of the problem. However, to tackle the disease we need to recognise the symptoms of the condition, learn about the origin of the threat, and assess the risk of reproduction, to be able to secure measures of prevention, treatment, intervention, and follow-up. In the case of violence against women, as in the case of the pandemic, the assessment of the damage is not enough.


  1. For example, during the lockdown, Argentina registered an increase of 25% in the number of emergency calls related to VAW. In Australia, the increase was 40% (UN Women, 2020).
  2. Menjívar, C., 2011. Enduring Violence. Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
  3. Green, L. (1998). Lived Lives and Social Suffering: Problems and Concerns in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 12(1), 3-7.
  4. Jubb, Nadine et al., (2008) Regional Mapping Study of Women’s Police Stations in Latin America. Quito: CEPLAES.
  5. UNDP. (2017) Comparing policy interventions on domestic violence in Latin America: criminalization, female empowerment and male engagement. NY: United Nations Development Programme

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