Flaws in the “Women’s Rights in the Arab World” poll
Update 2: Response from Reuters Foundation journalist Crina Boros – scroll to comments
Tayeb. Let’s be clear that this is no defense of Egypt and the abysmal state of women’s rights in this country. But since the Thomson-Reuters poll came out this week, ranking Egypt as the worst place in the Arab World to be a woman, I was curious to know how they reached that conclusion. So I took at look at the poll’s methodology, and these are a few quick comments.
a) The survey basis
The survey is designed to “assess the extent to which states adhere to key provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)”. Which would be fine and dandy if the CEDAW was the same for all polled countries: It’s not. Not all countries have signed or ratified the treaty (Somalia and Sudan haven’t); and more interestingly, and this is what I meant by “not all the same for all polled countries”, is that some countries have issued reservations that torpeado the very essence of the treaty. Saudi Arabia is a prime example.
If you sign an agreement but add, next to your signature, “I will abide by this treaty only if I think I like it”, then this beats the purpose of the agreement, doesn’t it? This is more or less what Saudi Arabia did. And other countries were pissed. This is how France, among many others, views the Saudi “exception”:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia formulates a reservation of general, indeterminate scope that gives the other States parties absolutely no idea which provisions of the Convention are affected or might be affected in future.
Given all this, can you really compare countries on their implementation of a treaty, if the treaty is not the same for everyone?
It’s like measuring the height of a group of people – only they’re standing on uneven ground, with some standing on a hill and others in a hole.
This is but one example of why basing the poll of the CEDAW is problematic.
b) The questions
It’s easy to accuse any survey of missing this or that question (because there will always be a question that someone feels is missing…) and I won’t do that. But let’s look at the questions and the weighing.
The pollsters gave equal weight to all questions. Like any weighing, it is arbitrary. But there a problem. Thomson-Reuters says:
“All questions had the same weight, as they were all based on CEDAW articles. We did not attempt to assume any relative importance to different CEDAW articles. For example, we did not try to determine whether female genital mutilation was any “better” or “worse” than marital rape as a form of violence against women.”
Valid point: I cannot measure whether FGM or marital rape is worse. (the mere thought of comparing is frightening). But can we compare other things? Say, sexual harassment vs. weak access to political participation? FGM vs. risking of being fired from work for being pregnant? Surely these don’t have the same weight when it comes to quality of life.
c) The timing
the poll was taken in August/September 2013. And the pollsters themselves are cognizant (page 5 of the methodology document) that
“We are aware that results may have been influenced by events taking place over the period the survey was conducted (August to September 2013)”
Arguably, the in the post July 3rd mess in Egypt and the post Rabaa massacre, it’s easy to imagine that respondents wouldn’t be very optimistic about much in Egypt…
d) The sample
336 experts were polled for their opinion on 22 countries. I’m assuming each expert was asked about 1 country. That makes an average of 15.2 per country. This strikes me as being a rather small sample for a poll of this type, where most questions are .
UPDATED. It appears the “selected experts” aren’t really selected (and perhaps not all experts). A copy of the email sent by the Reuters Foundation asking people to take their survey stated they were looking for “professionals with knowledge on the issue – journalists, activists, academics etc.” to take their poll; were allowed to fill the survey about whatever country they felt like; or if they felt competent enough or so fancied, to fill the survey for multiple countries.
I’ll let you think of the potential problems arising here.
And then – oooooh yes it gets better – they asked the ‘experts’ to forward the email to colleagues. So the ‘expert selection’ aspect, which would have covered for the small size of the sample, is shoddy at best. Sure, many who filled the survey are indeed experts; but it is very likely that many were not.
Again. This is not a defense of Egypt, which ranked last. Frankly I don’t care where we rank. And if putting it last means that this will jolt someone into action, then fine by me. I’m actually concerned that this position would make policymakers dismiss the results altogether and ignore it/attack it for being deliberately biased, which I don’t think it is.
The truth is, Egypt is a lousy place to be a woman. The amount of daily violence women are subjected to is frightening – both overt, but also concealed, insidious. It’s constant. Workplaces are dreadful, but streets are the worse… though probably not worse than public transportation.
We are light-years behind. And we’re in a pretty lousy neighbourhood, too.