Violence against women

One in three women worldwide suffers physical or sexual violence

The most ambitious study done so far warns that abuse within the couple continues to grow among girls aged 15 to 24 years

3 min
A woman holds a cardboard cross with the name of a young woman killed during a protest sparked by the recent Samaniego and Cale massacres on Aug. 21, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia

BarcelonaViolence against women is a true global pandemic, according to data presented this afternoon by the World Health Organization (WHO), in the most ambitious global study that has been carried out so far. At least one third of women on the planet (about 736 million) suffer or have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner or others. The data is even more frightening when you consider that the violence starts very early: one in four women between the ages of 15 and 24 who have had sex will have experienced violent behaviour from a partner by the time they are 25, the report concludes.

This macabre picture, which corresponds to data collected since 2000, has worsened with the pandemic of covid-19, according to the study, which has also been done with the collaboration of the UN and UNICEF, among other agencies. The real situation, the authors warn, could be even worse, taking into account that many sexual abuses are not reported because of the stigmatisation that the victims continue to suffer. In short, violence against women is one of the main violations of human rights and an international public health problem.

The most widespread violence occurs in the context of the couple in 26% of women, while 6% have suffered sexual violence from people who are not their husband or partner. The most alarming fact is that the rates of violence do not decrease in younger generations, on the contrary: one in four teenagers between 15 and 19 years old has already suffered sexual or physical violence at least once in her life at the hands of her partner. The study compiles data from 161 countries.

"We do not forget that we are talking about the situation before the imposition of measures to address the pandemic, such as home confinement. We know that there is a hidden pandemic of all types of violence against women and girls, as evidenced by the increase in reported cases," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women. The report notes that in many countries there has been an increase in telephone reports of gender-based violence within the home, including to police, health workers and teachers, but warns: "We will only know the true impact of the pandemic when new surveys can be carried out."

The study also notes the link between violence and poverty: women on lower incomes suffer "disproportionately" from such violence. In the most impoverished countries, the percentage of women who have suffered such abuse rises to 37%, and in some countries, such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Uganda and Bolivia, intimate partner violence affects up to half of all women. In Europe, the highest incidence is in the Nordic countries, with 23% of women aged 15-49 reporting intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, compared to 16% in southern European countries.

Women victims of violence can be affected for life and have a higher risk of depression, anxiety disorders, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and many other health problems. "Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture. It hurts millions of women and their families and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. But we have no vaccines to stop it," said WHO Director-General Thedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who urged "action to change harmful attitudes, improve equal opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships

Tackling inequalities

The report stresses that preventing violence against women requires reducing systemic economic, wage and social inequalities, promoting access to education and safe jobs, and combating laws and institutions that discriminate on the basis of gender. It is also committed to programmes that guarantee essential services for survivors of violence, especially with specific services in the field of health, to support women's organisation and to strengthen legal mechanisms. Combating the stigmatisation of victims and training of health personnel, as well as actions among teenagers and young people to promote equality, including comprehensive sexual education, are also strategies that have proven to be effective.