Violence Against Women Is “Unequivocally Pervasive”, Reveals Largest WHO Study Ever

Almost one in three women experience physical and/or sexual violence across the course of their lifetimes. And over the past 12 months, more than one in ten women suffered from physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, according to a new WHO-led report on gender-based violence, published just a day after International Women’s Day.

Gender-based violence is “unequivocally pervasive” across all regions of the world, putting the health and well-being of billions of women and girls at risk, reveals the most comprehensive WHO report yet on violence against women and girls. 

The results, said the WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros, paint a “horrifying picture” of out-of-control levels of violence against women by their intimate partners, as well as sexual violence against women by family, friends or strangers,  in many parts of the world. 

Young girls are unfortunately not immune; one in four adolescents aged 16-19 that have been in a relationship were subject to ether physical or sexual violence, found the report. In addition, 16% of women aged 15-24 reported physical or sexual violence over the past year.

 Given that the report was compiled from data preceding the pandemic, its estimates do not reflect the ways in which lockdowns, disruptions to essential services, and economic turmoil have exacerbated violence against women. But available data from the pandemic year suggest that many forms of violence against women have indeed risen.

Said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: “It’s deeply disturbing that this pervasive violence by men against women not only persists unchanged, but is at its worst for young women aged 15-24 who may also be young mothers. And that was the situation before the pandemic stay-at home orders.”

“We know that the multiple impacts of COVID-19 have triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of increased reported violence of all kinds against women and girls. Every government should be taking strong, proactive steps to address this, and involving women in doing so”, she added.

The report was produced by WHO on behalf of a the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Violence Against Women Estimation and Data (VAW-IAWGED), which includes representatives from UN Women, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNODC, and UNSD. 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women executive director

Pandemic Has Exacerbated Violence – And Can’t Be Stopped Just With A Vaccine 

“Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, also appearing at the briefing.

“But unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”

Stark Differences In Violence Between Rich & Poor Countries

These global figures, however, hide “very stark” differences between rich and poor countries, emphasised WHO’s Claudia Garcia Moreno, who led the preparation of the report, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday.

In the poorest countries of the world, intimate partner violence affected almost 40 % of women across their lifetime, almost twice that of high-income countries. The highest levels of violence were localized to regions of Oceania, Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – ranging from 33% to 51%. But the trends were unacceptably high everywhere”, said Moreno. According to the report, lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence reached 31% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 25% in the Americas, 22% in Europe, and 20% in the Western Pacific.

 “The rates are really unacceptably high everywhere, but we see the highest prevalence in the least developed countries,” said Moreno in a separate interview  that accompanied the report. 

“In particular, the regions of Oceania, Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia, and also when we look at countries we see that it’s the poorer countries, and countries which have been affected by conflict recently tend to have among the higher rates.”

Most Robust & Largest Dataset To Date 

The report, which draws on data from 161 countries for intimate partner violence and 137 countries for non-partner sexual violence, was collected across nearly two decades, between 2000 and 2018. As such, it is comprises the largest and most robust dataset on violence against women yet. 

At the same time, many of its findings echo those of an earlier WHO report on violence against women, published in 2013, which was based on data from 1983-2010. 

However, strictly speaking, the estimates of violence levels reported on in 2013 are not comparable with the latest figures – because they were calculated using different methods, said Moreno at Tuesday’s press conference; but she did note that the figures seem to have stayed relatively constant since they were last measured.

“We do not want to compare the estimates from 2013 with these findings [from 2021] because the methodology has changed, and the availability of data is substantially changed, and the quality of the data substantially changed,” said Moreno.

Claudia Garcia Moreno leads the World Health Organization’s work on violence against women

Cross-Country Comparisons Key Advantage 

Even so, one key feature of the new report is the fact that data has been assessed in a way that allows for key cross-country comparisons of violence levels and characteristics  – adjusting for differences in national survey methodologies.  

In addition, the report presents the first-ever global and regional estimates of levels of sexual violence against women by men other than their intimate partners.

The findings suggest that at least 6% of women above the age of 15 suffered from sexual violence by someone other than a husband or intimate partner at least once in their lifetime. Like all surveys that attempt to measure sexual violence against women and girls, this reportedly slim figure is likely to represent a “substantial” underestimate of the true extent of non-partner sexual violence, emphasized the study authors.

The report warns that unless urgent action is taken, the world will fail to reach one of the key targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality which calls on countries “to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private spheres (SDG 5.2).” by 2030. 

Impacts of Violence Are Physical & Psychological 

Violence against women has severe impacts on the health of their children

Violence against women deals a severe blow to mental, sexual and reproductive health, and contributes to other chronic health conditions, unplanned pregnancies, as well as poorer health in the children of affected women – which are more likely to perpetuate or experience violence in their lifetime than children of women that are unexposed to violence.

However, the report doesn’t go so far as to quantify the total number of deaths and disabilities that arise from the number of women who are raped, beaten or sexually assaulted every year. 

That data is compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which in 2017 found that some 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017, amounting to some 137 deaths of women every day, of which more than half were killed by intimate partners or family members.

Some Progress In Measurement of Violence Apparent

While the WHO led report presents a “very bleak” picture, the report does highlight some good news, noted Moreno. Since 2010, the number of nations with nationally representative surveys on violence against women has doubled – to 161 countries from 82, which is a key step forward, she said in an encouraging note.

Still, quite a few regions and countries lack any data whatsoever on violence against women, while others have “one or two data points” that are more than a decade-old. These patterns are most apparent in regions of South-East Asian and Eastern Mediterranean Regions for intimate partner violence; and also in the Eastern Mediterranean Region for non-partner sexual violence.

Data on violence is especially scarce in humanitarian settings and conflict zones, and lacking for some sub-groups of women – including older women, women with disabilities, migrants, Indigenous and ethnic minorities, and transgender women, noted the report. 

Even when countries adopt population-based surveys, it is challenging to assess their quality, as important contextual details relating to the interview process are rarely explicitly stated in survey results – whether interviewers were trained to collect data in a private space in a non-judgmental way, in the absence of male counterparts, and whether they provided referral services, is typically unclear, muddling our understanding of the quality of data gathered. 

Another issue with existing surveys is their failure to adequately capture the full spectrum of sexual violence, typically skewing results towards forms of violence that are easier to measure than others, such as rape. As a result, other forms of violence, like psychological violence, often slip under the radar. 

Surveys also lack the granularity to distinguish between different perpetrators of violence (e.g. former spouse, existing intimate partner, family member, friend, stranger), the type of sexual violence commited (e.g. rape, attempted rape, other sexual contact, non-contact sexual abuse), and fail to disaggregate data by age group in a consistent way. Meanwhile, some forms of violence – like cyberviolence or sexual harassment – are rarely measured at all in surveys, which is why they were not included in the report. 

Strategies For Reducing Violence Against Women And Girls

Men in Burkina Faso practice domestic work to ease the burden on their wives

Despite these issues, recent research has uncovered an extensive palette of evidence-based interventions that can help prevent violence in just a few years, emphasized Wendy Morton from the British Parliament, who also spoke at the WHO briefing Tuesday. 

She was referring to promising results from the UK-funded What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls evaluation programme – which found that interventions in homes, schools and communities can reduce violence against women by 50% in a few years.

 “We will not be deterred by the scale of the problem,” said Morton. “We now have the evidence that violence is preventable, and we know what approaches are effective. Together, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to translate this evidence into long-term prevention.”

Legal responses can also help curb violence against women and girls, added Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s executive director, noting that, worldwide, 155 countries have already passed laws related to domestic violence, and 140 have put in place legislation to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

But policies need to go beyond broad generalities about reducing violence against women and instead empower them in matters related to inheritance, property rights, divorce, child custody, and more, Moreno stressed. 

Laws against domestic violence, “need to be also coupled with laws and policies that do not perpetuate discrimination and not just laws on violence against women, but laws around inheritance or property rights laws around divorce or child custody…as well as interventions around economic opportunities and economic empowerment,” she said.

Hospital in Pakistan offers counselling for women experiencing gender-based violence.

Scarce Resources Bad Excuse To Not Fight Violence Against Women 

One barrier to change is, of course, the costs of providing better services in low- and middle-income countries that both lack strong public and mental health systems – and where violence against women may be most prevalent.  Those challenges have redoubled during the pandemic.  

But communities, families and parents can still do “a lot” to fight violence against women, WHO’s Assistant Director for Family, Women, and Children, Princess Nothemba (Nono) Simelela said:  

“There’s a lot that communities can do on their own without looking at big resources,” she said. “I just want to highlight that it’s not only about money and reports, it’s about us as a people, and how we treat ourselves, others and those we see and love.”

“Governments can help you, but you as a partner can take responsibility for your well-being with your family.”

Princess Nothemba Simelela, WHO’s Assistant Director for Family, Women, and Children

Image Credits: UNICEF/Noorani, UNFPA Moldova/Anastasia Pirvu, UNFPA/Ollivier Girard, WHO / Blink .

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