When we think about violence against women, the picture that often comes to mind are the types of attacks portrayed on Law and Order: rapists breaking into women’s homes in the middle of the night and assaulting them.
Seven percent of women globally have experienced this type of violence: sexual assault by a stranger.
But recent news in the U.S., from the NFL player abuse scandals to the intense focus on campus sexual assault, has made the public realize what women’s groups and researchers have known for years: intimate partner violence—which encompasses violence committed by a spouse, unmarried partner, or inside a dating relationship—is the most common form of violence against women. Thirty percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner, according to a groundbreaking 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) study.
Speaking at a recent IWHC Leadership Council event, the one of the report’s authors, Dr. Claudia García-Moreno, Lead Specialist, Gender, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Health and Adolescence at the WHO, noted: “There’s many different forms of violence against women. But one of the most common forms, across countries, across cultures, is violence by intimate partners.”
The WHO study found that among women abused by intimate partners, 42 percent sustained physical injuries. Psychological trauma from such abuse also increases the likelihood of alcoholism, depression, and suicide. In addition to physical and mental health consequences for the woman, abuse during pregnancy—committed by the biological father in more than 90 percent of the cases—was common. The stress of living in an abusive situation while pregnant results in greater chances of prematurity and low birth weight.
The danger to women extends beyond violence. Shockingly, the WHO report found that intimate partners were the perpetrators in 38 percent of all murders of women globally; when men are victims of murder, 6 percent of perpetrators were intimate partners. As IWHC President Françoise Girard noted at the same event: “For women, the greatest risk of being killed is by a partner.”
One innovative way of addressing the consequences of sexual violence is training those at the front lines: the doctors, nurses, and midwives who treat the women suffering from the physical and emotional effects of abuse. “We really want to promote integration of these issues into the medical and nursing curricula at the level of the health care service,” said García-Moreno. “ I think the health care sector can play an important role in promoting prevention because the health care response is necessary and we need to address all the women who are already suffering from violence.” To that effect, the WHO released clinical and policy guidelines to help health care workers respond to intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women.
García-Moreno acknowledged that helping survivors of violence recover is only part of the solution. “We also need to think of ways to stop it from happening in the first place, and that’s around some of these macro-level factors, so changing social norms, ensuring that laws don’t discriminate against women, access to education, access to employment. We need to do more to promote prevention at the same time that we’re responding and helping women who are already in that situation.” Efforts like the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence go a long way towards raising public awareness about issues such as intimate partner violence.
Reflecting on decades of work as a medical doctor and researcher, García-Moreno said: “Change is happening. Maybe not as fast we’d like it to be, but you have to have a long-term vision. We’re seeing a lot of things work.”