WHO Reports Violence Against Women A Global Epidemic
June 21, 2013

WHO Reports Violence Against Women A Global Epidemic

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

More than one-third of all women around the world are victims of physical or sexual violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report this week, in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), calling this problem a public health epidemic. Two companion papers were also published in The Lancet and Science.

The report, which is the first systemic study of global data on the prevalence of violence against women by both partners and non-partners, claims that 38 percent of all women murdered were killed by their partners.

As BBC News reports, the study also reveals that such violence is a major contributor to depression and other health problems in women, such as broken bones, bruises, pregnancy complications, and other forms of mental illness.

"This is an everyday reality for many, many women," Charlotte Watts, a health policy expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told Reuters.

Recent high-profile rape cases in India and South African have highlighted the treatment of women worldwide, said Claudia Garcia-Moreno of the WHO. A 23-year-old woman was brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi last December. She later died of her injuries. The event sparked a global outcry and unprecedented protests in India demanding better policing of sex crimes.

"These kinds of cases raise awareness, which is important, and at the same time we must remember there are hundreds of women every day who are being raped on the streets and in their homes, but that doesn't make the headlines," Garcia-Moreno said.

Watts points to the incident earlier this week of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being choked by her husband, Charles Saatchi. "We don't know the details of what is going there [sic], but it does illustrate this happens to all women - it's not just poor women, or women in a certain country. This really is a global issue," Watts said.

Key findings of the WHO report include such disheartening statistics as: 42 percent of women sexually or physically abused by partners sustained injuries; victims of such abuse are more likely to suffer depression and to have alcohol problems, abortions and acquire sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, syphilis, Chlamydia or gonorrhea. Women victimized in this way are also more likely to give birth to underweight and premature babies, and to attempt suicide. The raised stress levels caused by such abuse are implicated in a variety of further health problems, including chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.

The authors call for new guidelines worldwide to prevent abuse and offer better protection to victims, stressing the importance of training health workers to recognize when women may be at risk of partner violence and how to respond. These guidelines include ensuring that consultation rooms can be totally private and confidential, that appropriate referral systems are in place, and that women at risk from partners should not be sent back home.

"The world's health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.


The data used to compile the report was gathered by a concerted multi-year effort to develop and disseminate methods to measure gender-related violence, Nature reports.

“By saying ‘we're going to measure it,’ we've put it on the scientific agenda,” said Rachel Jewkes, head of the South African Medical Research Council.

According to Jewkes, as recently as two decades ago, governments considered domestic violence as something private and inevitable – and therefore, something governments could do little to address.

Having global statistics puts violence against women on the radar for “global bodies that are looking for one number to show that violence is an issue.”

Karen Devries, a social epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked with a team of colleagues to comb through peer-reviewed literature and so-called “grey literature” – statistics and reports compiled by government agencies. For example, to estimate the prevalence of violence against women across global regions and age ranges, dozens of researchers searched more than 25,000 abstracts.

The research team looked for studies that assessed the prevalence of violence across entire countries or large regions within them, as well as performing or requesting additional analysis of four large international studies. The final numbers were based on data from 141 studies in 81 countries. Eighty percent of the estimates included in the WHO report were based on what are considered gold-standard methods — private one-on-one interviews in which women are asked about specific acts of violence, including slaps, kicks, use of weapons and rape over their lifetime.


The team adjusted the studies for differences in design and methodological quality. They found that the highest rates of partner violence were found in central sub-Saharan Africa (between 54 and 78 percent). Even high income regions in Asia, North America and western Europe, however, had rates above 15 percent – a number that jumps even higher when sexual non-partner violence is factored in.

The researchers admit that the studies still have gaps. For instance, data from central sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and southern Latin America, and for women over 49 concerning partner violence is scarce. The studies also did not assess emotional violence, or partners’ gender. In fact, most studies only gathered information on male partners. To add to the confusion, many homicide reports do not include information about the victim’s relationship to the perpetrator.

Even with these limitations, the data compiled will enable researchers to conduct cross-country and regional comparisons, as well as 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.”

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