WHO releases new report on Violence against Women (9 March 2021)

Key messages:

Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a persistent and major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.

Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally on average, 736 million and up to 852 million women who were aged 15 years or older in 2018 about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

Violence against women assets

Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (27%) of women aged 15-49 years who have been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner (since age 15).

The prevalence estimates of lifetime intimate partner violence by WHO Region are as under:

  • Western Pacific: 20%  
  • High-income countries and Europe: 22%  
  • WHO Regions of the Americas: 25%  
  • WHO African region: 33%
  • WHO Eastern Mediterranean region: 31%, and  
  • WHO South-East Asia region: 33%

Globally as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. In addition to intimate partner violence, globally 6% of women report having been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner. Intimate partner and sexual violence are mostly perpetrated by men against women.

Violence against women is preventable. The health sector has an important role to play to provide comprehensive health care to women subjected to violence, and as an entry point for referring women to other support services they may need.

Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic impacts have increased the exposure of women to abusive partners and known risk factors, while limiting their access to services. Situations of humanitarian crises and displacement may exacerbate existing violence, such as by intimate partners, as well as non-partner sexual violence, and may also lead to new forms of violence against women.

Social media tiles: Violence against women & COVID-19
Social media tiles: Violence against women & COVID-19

Health consequences

Intimate partner (physical, sexual and psychological) and sexual violence cause serious short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems for women. They also affect their children’s health and wellbeing. This violence leads to high social and economic costs for women, their families and societies. Such violence can:

  • Have fatal outcomes like homicide or suicide.
  • Lead to injuries, with 42% of women who experience intimate partner violence reporting an injury because of this violence.
  • Lead to unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, gynaecological problems, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. WHO’s 2013 study on the health burden associated with violence against women found that women who had been physically or sexually abused were 1.5 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection and, in some regions, HIV, compared to women who had not experienced partner violence. They are also twice as likely to have an abortion.
  • Intimate partner violence during pregnancy is associated with increases in miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies. The same 2013 study showed that women who experienced intimate partner violence were 16% more likely to suffer a miscarriage and 41% more likely to have a pre-term birth.
  • These forms of violence can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. The 2013 analysis found that women who have experienced intimate partner violence were almost twice as likely to experience depression and problem drinking.
  • Health effects can also include headaches, pain syndromes (back pain, abdominal pain, chronic pelvic pain) gastrointestinal disorders, limited mobility and poor overall health.
  • Sexual violence, particularly during childhood, can lead to increased smoking, substance use, and risky sexual behaviours. It is also associated with perpetration of violence (for males) and being a victim of violence (for females).

Impact on children

  • Children who grow up in families where there is violence may suffer a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances. These can also be associated with perpetrating or experiencing violence later in life.
  • Intimate partner violence has also been associated with higher rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity (through, for example diarrhoeal disease or malnutrition and lower immunization rates).

Social and economic costs

The social and economic costs of intimate partner and sexual violence are enormous and have ripple effects throughout society. Women may suffer isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children.

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