Violence Against Women at Epidemic Proportions

report and guidelines from the World Health Organization [1] (WHO) in Geneva, Swizerland, along with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council in Pretoria, estimates how often women suffer sexual violence from someone other than a partner, gauge the impact of partner and non-partner violence [2] on women’s health and advise health-care providers on how to support the victims [3].

“These numbers should be a wake-up call. We want to highlight that this is a problem that occurs in all regions and it’s unacceptably high,” says Claudia García-Moreno, a physician at WHO who coordinates research on gender violence and worked on all the publications.

According to the WHO report, 42% of women who experienced violence were physically injured by their partners. But violence harms women in ways beyond injury. Violent partners may prevent women from visiting health clinics or from accessing medicine or contraception. Women who experienced violence from a partner are more likely to be infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, to have an abortion, to give birth to underweight and premature babies, and to attempt suicide. They are also more likely to use alcohol and are twice as likely to experience depression — factors which can be both cause of and be caused by a partner's violence. In addition, the authors point out, raised stress levels are implicated in a range of health problems, including chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.

Such figures mean that violence should be considered alongside 'mainstream' health risks such as smoking and alcohol use, says Kristin Dunkle, a social epidemiologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who was not involved in the studies. “This is the moment where we say ‘no one is allowed to have their head in the sand, and no one is addressing women's health if they aren't addressing violence’.”

On the scientific agenda
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Studies were adjusted for differences in design and methodological quality. The highest rates of partner violence, estimated between 54% and 78%, were found in central sub-Saharan Africa, but even high-income regions in Asia, North America and western Europe had rates above 15%. These jump considerably when sexual non-partner violence is factored in.

The studies still have gaps. For example, data about partner violence from central sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and southern Latin America, and for women over 49, were scarce. In addition, the studies did not assess emotional violence, and though estimates did not consider partners’ gender, most research studies solicited information only on male partners. In addition, many homicide reports do not include information about perpetrators’ relationships to their victims.

Nonetheless, the data that have been pulled together will enable researchers to conduct cross-country and regional comparisons and help generate hypotheses about how social conditions and policies may influence prevalence, says Victoria Frye, a social epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York. “We really did not have that capacity previously.”

And by establishing baseline figures for violence, governments and social researchers are better placed to develop and assess interventions, says Jewkes. “I want to see us in a situation where we are tracking the global decline of women being hit by partners and experiencing rape.”


1 Stöckl, H. et al. Lancet (2013).
2 Devries, K. M. et al. Science (2013).


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