WHO: 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence

A demonstrator stands in front of posters during a protest rally in New Delhi calling for justice for women.

Story highlights

  • 35.6% of women in world experience sexual or physical violence
  • Women who've been abused are more likely to suffer health problems
  • Statistics on violence on women are likely underestimates

One in three women experience sexual or physical violence -- most likely from their intimate partner, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

The report, called the first of its kind, estimates the global toll of such violence on women at 35.6%. In a statement, Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, described it as a "global health problem of epidemic proportions."

Women who have been physically and sexually abused are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, to have an abortion, to get depression, injuries, alcohol use disorders and pregnancy complications, according to the WHO report.

About 38% of all murdered women are killed by an intimate partner (compared with 6% of all murdered men).

Violence against women should not be considered as isolated events, but rather a "pattern of behavior that violates the rights of women and girls," the authors wrote.

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They also warned that the figures from the report are likely underestimated.

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Getting accurate statistics on sexual and physical violence remains difficult due to stigma and underreporting, said the authors from the WHO, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and South African Medical Research Council. Also, reporting sexual violence may put women's lives at risk, they wrote.

The report, compiled through global and regional population data, was constrained by the lack of information in places such as the Middle East, central Sub-Saharan Africa, East and Central Asia.

Based on the available information, Southeast Asia is the most affected region with 37.7% experiencing partner violence. The data included Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

In India, outrage stemming from high-profile rape cases prompted national discussions on the treatment of women and changes in the country's laws.

The other regions of the world reporting higher partner violence were the Eastern Mediterranean with 37% (based on data from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territory) and 36.6% in Africa.

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The Americas followed with 29.8%, Europe (Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine) at 25.4% and the Western Pacific (Cambodia, China, Philippines, Samoa, Vietnam) had 24.6%. Higher income countries (which included places like Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Japan, United Kingdom and United States) had 23.2% prevalence of violence.

When factoring in non-partner violence, authors found that 45.6% of females in Africa had experienced abuse. Southeast Asia followed with 40.2%.

Despite such figures, the report authors wrote: "Violence is not inevitable."

"This new data shows that violence against women is extremely common. We urgently need to invest in prevention to address the underlying causes of this global women's health problem," said Charlotte Watts, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in a released statement.

The WHO recommended better access to post-rape care and healthcare training. The authors also supported recommendations such as more legal and policy accountability, programs for women, as well as the underlying causes that "foster a culture of violence against women."

"Promising prevention programs exist, and need to be tested and scaled up," the authors wrote.