By Kristen Mitchell
Mary Ellsberg, director of the George Washington University Global Women’s Institute, said when she started her work in activism, an academic institution is the last place she thought she would end up. Twenty years ago, however, she discovered the power of using research to achieve social change.
While working in the Nicaraguan women’s movement, she advocated for a law that would protect women and girls from intimate partner violence, but found that without data and research her efforts weren’t convincing people in positions of power.
“Politicians just uniformly laughed at us,” Dr. Ellsberg said.
Dr. Ellsberg and a team of researchers interviewed 500 women as part of a prevalence study and found that half of them had experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner. In the years since then, Nicaragua has passed legislation that gives women and girls added legal protection against violence.
“That really taught me that having good, compelling evidence, rigorously done, is an incredibly powerful tool,” Dr. Ellsberg said.
Coming to GW in 2012 to lead the Global Women’s Institute was a dream come true, said Dr. Ellsberg Tuesday evening at a celebration to mark GWI’s five-year anniversary. President Steven Knapp sought to create GWI to establish the university as a leader around women’s empowerment issues and gender equality.
GWI sits outside any of the university’s colleges and schools, which positions it as a place that fosters collaboration and interdisciplinary work, Dr. Knapp said.
“There’s always some skepticism that we’re creating something just to have another thing, that it doesn’t add any value,” he said. “But I think this has been a brilliant example really of what you can do to multiply the power of the work that is going on in the departments and individual schools.”
To honor Dr. Knapp, who is stepping down as president in July, GWI established the Knapp Global Women’s Fellowship, which will be awarded annually to a distinguished guest who has worked on women’s issues.
The first fellow is Yeganeh Rezaian, a journalist who was jailed in Iran following a 2014 raid of her home, along with husband Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post. Ms. Rezaian will devote her fellowship to examining the experiences of female journalists in Muslim countries. Mr. Rezaian was named a School of Media and Public Affairs Terker Distinguished Fellow earlier this year.
The five-year celebration featured a discussion on the importance of GWI among Dr. Knapp, Dr. Ellsberg and Kirsten Dimovitz, a student in the Elliott School of International Affairs and former president of Students Against Sexual Assault. Marketplace radio reporter Andrea Seabrook moderated the conversation.
The evening also included a performance of the original production “This is My Calling: Women’s Journeys into Activism,” which was written and directed by Department of Theatre and Dance professor and GWI-affiliated faculty member Leslie Jacobson.
GWI’s goal is to effect global policy changes based on research. In 2015, staff presented before the United Nations with other researchers and women’s rights activists to advocate for adding violence against women and girls to as a target under the Gender Equality Goal of the sustainable development goals, the UN’s 15-year plan to make the world a better place, said policy associate Chelsea Ullman. As a result of their advocacy, the list of targets included eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.
“Research is at the heart of what we do, but we believe strongly that research should be used for action,” Ms. Ullman said. “So all of the work that we do is to bridge research and evidence to create policy change and create social justice and really using that data for action.”
The most significant ongoing research study is in South Sudan, Dr. Ellsberg said. The country gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and is the newest country in the world. Researchers are working on the country’s first violence against women and girls prevalence study.
“We were really trying to change that paradigm and have people remember that gender equalities are a big part of this whole issue, and they need to be addressed if we want to have a chance of seeing peace in places like South Sudan,” she said.
A report on GWI's findings will be released in 2017.
In the next five years, GWI plans to focus on the national conversation around sexual assault on college campuses and continue working on immigration and refugee issues and how those impact women. GWI has primarily focused on policy work at the domestic level through immigration reform and has compiled policy briefs pushing for immigration reform to protect women and girls from violence related to border crossing and living without documents.
Researchers also plan to return to Nicaragua for a follow up on Dr. Ellsberg’s original prevalence study and to research the impact of laws that have been passed in the last 20 years aimed at protecting women from domestic violence.