Urgent action needed to counter widespread violence against women: UN health agency

6 October 2006 – Violence against women is common and widespread throughout the developing and developed world and urgent action must be taken to deal with the scourge, the United Nations health agency warned today in a report highlighting that women are generally more at risk from their partners than other people.

Over 24,000 women from 15 sites in 10 countries were interviewed for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women, which showed that over 75 per cent of women physically or sexually abused since the age of 15 reported a partner as the culprit.

“Violence against women by an intimate partner is a major contributor to the ill-health of women. This study analyses data from 10 countries and sheds new light on the prevalence of violence against women in countries where few data were previously available,” writes WHO Director-General Lee Jong-Wook in the Forward to the report.

“This study will help national authorities to design policies and programmes that begin to deal with the problem… Challenging the social norms that condone and therefore perpetuate violence against women is a responsibility for us all… Much greater investment is urgently needed in programmes to reduce violence against women and to support action on the study’s findings and recommendations.”

The main focus of the Study was violence against women by male intimate partners, including physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse and controlling behaviour by current partners or ex-partners, and covered both the current situation of the women interviewed and their lifetime experience.

The proportion of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner, ranged from 15 per cent to 71 per cent, with most sites falling between 29 per cent and 62 per cent. Women in Japan were the least likely to have experienced such violence, while the greatest incidence was reported in provincial –– mostly rural –– areas of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and the United Republic of Tanzania.

The Study also examined physical and sexual abuse by men and women other than a current or former partner and contradicted the common perception that most violence is perpetrated by strangers.

“In the majority of settings, over 75 per cent of women physically or sexually abused since the age of 15 years reported abuse by a partner. In only two settings, urban Brazil and Samoa, were at least 40 per cent of women abused only by someone other than a partner,” it found.

Presenting seven categories of recommendations, ranging from promoting gender equality to encouraging abused women to seek help, the report concludes that violence against women is “morally indefensible; [while] its cost to individuals, to health systems, and to society in general is enormous.”

“The wide variations in prevalence and patterns of violence from country to country, and, even more important, from setting to setting within countries, indicate that there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. Attitudes can and must change; the status of women can and must be improved.”

The categories of recommendations are:

  • Strengthening national commitment and action. In particular, the Study notes that improving women’s legal and socioeconomic status is likely in the long term, to be a “key intervention in reducing women’s vulnerability to violence.”
  • Promoting primary prevention, including such measures as media campaigns that encourage women to talk about the problem, plus prioritizing the prevention of child abuse.
  • Involving the education sector, including eradicating teacher violence.
  • Strengthening the health sector response, including ensuring that health providers who see and care for abused women coordinate and work with other sectors, particularly the police and social services.
  • Supporting women living with violence, especially through better and more accessible support services.
  • Sensitizing criminal justice systems, namely by ensuring that police, investigators, medico-legal staff, lawyers and judges are trained to consider and address the particular needs and priorities of abused women, particularly those faced with violence by a partner or ex-partner.
  • Supporting research and collaboration to increase knowledge of the problem of violence against women and thereby design programmes to combat it.

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