Partner violence as a central issue for public health: The Guardian Science interviews Charlotte Watts

11 June 2012
Annie Holmes

How does one collect good data on such a complicated and often hidden subject as domestic violence? And, more importantly, why?

In this podcast (scroll to 24 mins and 40 secs), popular Guardian Science editor Alok Jha puts these questions to STRIVE Research Director Charlotte Watts.

Watts co-led an influential World Health Organisation study in the mid-2000s. Interviews with over 24,000 women in ten countries showed an alarmingly high prevalence of violence by intimate partners. As Watts explains to Jha, this is not the kind of data that researchers can walk away from: you have to be committed to using this evidence to push governments to tackle the implications.

She goes on to explain how domestic violence relates to public health:

  • as a hidden risk factor for depression, suicide and – in the many cases of murder of women by their intimate partners – homicide
  • as a risk factor for HIV infection, for example in South Africa which has high levels of both violence against women and HIV

Detailed and careful epidemiological analysis by Watts and her colleagues teases out these links. With partners worldwide, they adapt the rigorous clinical trials for which the LSHTM is renowned in order to evaluate the impact of community-level interventions.

One such study uncovered good news: a programme of social and economic empowerment for women halved the levels of violence in a fairly short time (two years).

A mathematician by training, Watts became curious early on in her career about the social issues she was enumerating. What factors made women so vulnerable to HIV?

Today, she leads efforts to combine the power of numbers with human stories to make the case for change. Her agenda, as Alok Jha found out, is to deliver to Ministries of Health and Finance the quantitative data to convince them of:

  • the links between intimate partner violence and a range of health risks including HIV
  • the proven impact of programmes to reduce violence
  • the cost effectiveness of such interventions taken to scale