Violence Against Women Is a Global Health Epidemic

Violence against women has become a “global health problem of epidemic proportions,” according to a new report by the World Health Organization.

The report, which analyzes data from 141 studies in 81 countries, offers the first comprehensive look at intimate partner violence globally. Moreover, it reveals how physical and sexual abuse impacts women’s health.

The numbers are staggering.

Worldwide, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. As many as 38 percent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners (in comparison, men die at the hands of a wife or partner only 6 percent of the time).

Women who have been physically or sexually abused by their partners are more likely to experience a range of health problems. Women not only die or suffer injuries, survivors are also left with longstanding mental and physical health problems. These women are almost twice as likely to report symptoms of depression and harmful alcohol use. In some regions, women who are exposed to intimate partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Violent relationships are frequently marked by fear and controlling behaviors by partners, so it is not surprising that women who are abused have more unintended pregnancies (there are an estimated 80 million such pregnancies each year). These women are more than twice as likely to have an abortion. Where abortion remains illegal or heavily restricted, unsafe procedures can put women’s health at even greater risk. Unintended pregnancies that are carried to term also pose health risks to mothers and infants—women who are abused are 16 percent more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby.

The WHO report calls for urgent action to prevent violence from happening in the first place and to provide services for women experiencing violence. The health sector must play a greater role in responding to intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women. WHO’s new guidelines emphasize the need to integrate issues related to violence into clinical training, so that all health care providers understand the relationship between exposure to violence and women’s ill-health, and are able to respond appropriately.

As the report states, “one key aspect is to identify opportunities to provide support and link women with other services they need—for example, when women seek sexual and reproductive health services (e.g. antenatal care, family planning, post-abortion care) or HIV testing, mental health and emergency services. Comprehensive post-rape care services need to be made available and accessible at a much larger scale than is currently provided.”

There is no silver bullet for ending violence against women. Governments need to take a comprehensive approach to this epidemic by promoting gender equality and providing survivors of rape with emergency contraception and safe abortion—commitments recently made by governments at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

The WHO report offers great guidelines for a health sector approach to this epidemic, but we need to also invest in comprehensive sexuality education programs that teach boys and girls that violence is never acceptable.

The evidence is clear, and the need is urgent. A life free from violence is a basic human right. We need to all work together to make this right a reality.

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