Violence against women at 'epidemic' levels worldwide, say experts

Aisha Majid
Women marching in protest against abuse and sexual harassment in London at the beginning of this year - Barcroft Media

The UK government has announced plans to toughen up laws on domestic violence, including tagging perpetrators and forcing them to attend alcohol or addiction treatment programmes.

Anyone breaching these tough new orders imposed by the courts could face jail. 

Unveiling the plans, prime minister Theresa May highlighted the toll on the two million women in the UK subject to domestic abuse. 

"Domestic abuse takes many forms, from physical and sexual abuse, to controlling and coercive behaviour that isolates victims from their families and has long-term, shattering impacts on their children," she said. 

While the situation in the UK is bad, around the world it is worse. The World Health Organization (WHO) described the scale of violence against women as a “global health problem of epidemic proportions.”

WHO data revealed that one in three women - 35.6% - across the world have experienced violence, amounting to more than 800 million women worldwide.

The health effects of this violence are stark. Women who have experienced violence are 16% more likely to have a low birthweight baby; are more than twice as likely to have an abortion; are almost twice as likely to experience depression; and, in some regions, are one and a half times more likely to become infected with HIV.

Partner violence accounts for most violence against women

Heidi Stöckl, director of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "We know that violence is associated with all these health effects like depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and a lot of maternal health problems such as low birthweight and miscarriage. Governments have the data and they must now be held accountable."

The WHO figures also highlight the fact that 38% of women murdered around the world are killed by their partner, compared to just 6% of men. In South East Asia, this figure is much higher: 55% of murdered women are killed by a current or ex partner.

And more than one in four women – 42% - who have been physically or sexually abused by a partner have experienced injuries as a result of that violence.

High levels of sexual violence against women by non-partners

A study by accountants KPMG found that violence against women cost the South African economy between 28.4 and 42.4 billion rand in 2012-13 – equivalent to between 0.9% and 1.5% of GDP.

Professor Stöckl said  evidence on the best way to address violence against women is scarce. Programmes challenging  attitudes to women and giving women loans to start businesses via microfinance had shown some success.

"These programmes are promising but they're also expensive so that's a challenge," she said.

She added that women in countries where gender roles were changing, such as Saudi Arabia, could be more vulnerable to violence.

"You often get countries where gender roles are becoming more fluid and this can be quite dangerous for a woman because men find it hard to accept. There's a transition period where there's a higher risk of violence than in a nation where gender equality is more accepted or where roles are still very traditional," she said. 

But she added she was optimistic things would eventually change. 

"No-one is happy in a violent relationship," she said. 

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation . Find out more


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