The blog of the Urban Institute
September 13, 2019

Five Insights on Researching Violence against Women after 25 Years of VAWA

September 13, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, Congress nearly unanimously passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Since then, Congress has funded efforts to curb stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence while supporting research on how best to do so.

Despite support for VAWA during subsequent reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005, it met political divisiveness during the reauthorization process in 2013. During the latest reauthorization process, VAWA expired (as of February 15, 2019). On April 4, 2019, the House passed a reauthorization for VAWA (H.R. 1585), which is currently awaiting Senate consideration.

If VAWA funding ceased permanently, we would risk (for example) experiencing a shortage of trained service providers, such as sexual assault nurse examiners, whose work leads to better quality of care for victims and more effective prosecution of cases.

This outcome is hardly conjectural. During the past few decades, intimate partner violence (PDF) and sexual assault (PDF) has decreased while implementation of evidence-based practices to prevent violence against women, support survivors, and hold those who commit such acts accountable has increased. Evidence suggests that VAWA-supported efforts have contributed to these reductions in violence and improved outcomes for victims.

How VAWA has supported research

VAWA has provided consistent funding for research and evaluation to understand the prevalence, nature, and consequences of violence against women. It’s also helped inform and improve the role of victim-centered programs and criminal justice responses.

Conducting research often involves partnering with community agencies—both nonprofit victim service providers and criminal justice system agencies. Research projects involving many stakeholders are often messy and difficult, even when they’re based on well-functioning relationships.

I have been conducting research on these topics and collaborating with practitioners for nearly as long as VAWA has been in place, and my views on how best to conduct research in this space have evolved.  It used to be good enough to include practitioner partners just as members of an advisory board, but involving survivors of violence and the providers who help them needs to be more deliberate, intentional, and authentic.

Here are five insights on how we can conduct better research in this area, based on my experience:

1. Include and compensate both national and local partners

Rather than only periodically seeking advice or—worse yet—using these relationships solely to obtain access to victims in order to study them, we need to engage partners while research ideas and proposals are developed.

Researchers should also compensate partners for their contributions to developing ideas, data collection tools, and project products and for assisting with collecting data and recruiting study participants.

Compensation is crucial because victim service agencies are often underresourced and staff are spread thin. Through the Center for Victim Research, we have supported meaningful research-practitioner partnerships with the intention of providing resources for both parties, and we have built a database of researchers interested in partnering with victim service agencies that practitioners can use to find local partners.

2. Collaborate with agency and program staff at all levels

When collaborating with local agencies, garnering the support of an agency’s entire staff should be fundamental. If the study is multidisciplinary, such as a sexual assault response team, researchers should apply the same approach to stakeholders.

Too often, cultivating a research relationship focuses attention on executive directors or leadership teams while neglecting frontline staff who have valuable insights on the knowledge gaps they have that they want research to answer and how best to implement the research project. Also, their support is likely the most critical to the project’s successful implementation.

3. Make findings digestible to broad audiences

Producing research products that clearly explain policy and practice implications helps create real change. The research field surrounding violence against women has long translated research findings into practitioner-friendly documents, and I’ve spent much of my career doing this.

Going forward, collaborating with practitioners to coauthor reports could be a promising way to increase practitioners’ engagement with the material. Such an arrangement could help accessibly present evidence and useful, practical guidance.

Open and honest communication throughout the writing process—whereby all parties can share their points of view—can ensure a product is grounded in the evidence without overstating claims.

4. Pursue projects that go beyond evaluation

When collaborating with local agencies, funding that continues services beyond the life of the evaluation can lead to long-lasting relationships.

Researchers are often interested in conducting the most rigorous research and evaluation possible without putting research participants at risk or denying them help they might urgently need. Randomized controlled trials are commonly considered unethical by service providers who might not believe in withholding services.

A better balance could be struck if we help ensure receipt of those services at some point if some portion of an agency’s population has been unable to access services as a result of a study design.

We researchers have considerable expertise in grant writing and other business development activities, and lending such support to a small nonprofit could help bring resources down the road.

5. Elevate the voices of those affected by violence

Research can elevate the voices of those who have been victims of stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner and dating violence by involving them in the research process.

The Urban Institute has embraced community-engaged research methods that more actively involve communities being studied. And this involvement can range from community-based participatory research to community consultation.

This engagement leads to better research and more effective programs and policies, and it increases survivors’ capacity by building their research literacy skills and practices.

For 25 years, VAWA has supported research to improve our nation’s response to violence against women, while our understanding on how to better research these issues has evolved. Meaningful integration of the people at the center of the work—those who are victims of violence and the providers who work with them—is essential to rigorous research in this field.

These lessons can be brought to bear on VAWA research over the next 25 years so we can continue this progress.

Diana Dean, a sexual abuse survivor, writes in her notebook between quilts crafted by sexual abuse or rape survivors laid out on the National Mall for the Monument Quilt display in Washington, DC on May 31, 2019. (Photo by Anna-Rose GASSOT / AFP)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.