One in three women subjected to “devastatingly pervasive” violence, WHO finds

Women remember the burning of the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe House where 41 girls died on 08 March 2017, during a commemorative march for International Women’s Day that ended in front of the National Palace of Culture, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 08 March 2021.(Sourse: Keystone)

Gender-based violence is “devastatingly pervasive” and affects 736 million women, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has found.

Deemed the largest study of its kind, the WHO said that one in three women worldwide have been subjected to either physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, with numbers likely to be higher given the levels of stigma and under-reporting.

“Violence against women remains devastatingly pervasive and starts alarmingly young,” the authors said in their report. One in four women aged between 15-24 years will have already experienced violence by an intimate partner before reaching their mid-twenties.

Although the form in which women experience violence is often through an intimate partner, affecting around 641 million, the report found that six per cent of women are sexually assaulted by someone other than their husband or partner.

“Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.

“This is an old problem, but we can change it,” he said. “We can all speak up to say the violence against women is never acceptable.”


Shadow pandemic? Looking at data since the last global study in 2013, the findings expose that women affected by violence have remained largely unchanged. Using data from existing surveys across 161 countries between the years 2000 and 2018, the study omits data from the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, “we know that the multiple impacts of Covid-19 have triggered a ‘shadow pandemic’ of increased reported violence of all kinds against women and girls,” said UN women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a press conference on Tuesday.

The WHO and its partners warn that the pandemic increased the exposure to violence as a result of measures such as lockdowns and disruptions to vital support services.

“But unlike Covid-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships,” said Ghebereyesus.

Also speaking at this conference British member of parliament Wendy Morton weighed in on the research findings, telling reporters that “it reveals the persistent magnitude of violence against women around the world.”

“I am deeply concerned by the surge of violence during the pandemic, including here in the UK, but as we've heard, even before Covid-19 violence was at epic levels. We know there is the risk that once the media spotlight moves on from Covid-19, some will wrongly assume that the violence has suddenly stopped. It's therefore vital that together, we sustain a long-term approach to stop violence before it starts,” she said.

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Screenshot of press conference

Impact of gender-based violence. According to the report, violence can affect a woman’s health and well-being throughout her life, causing depression, anxiety, unplanned pregnancies and many other health problems.  The UN Women executive, Mlambo-Ngcuka also emphasised the economic costs.

Breaking down the results regionally, the study suggests that women in low-and lower-middle income countries suffer disproportionately from violence especially in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

There are “stark differences between high income countries, and low and middle income countries where women often have limited access to the economic and social support that they need to leave abusive relationships,” Garcia-Moreno added.

What should be done?  “To address violence against women, there’s an urgent need to reduce stigma around this issue, train health professionals to interview survivors with compassion, and dismantle the foundations of gender inequality,” said Claudia Garcia-Moreno of the WHO. “Interventions with adolescents and young people to foster gender equality and gender-equitable attitudes are also vital.”

Expressing commitments to fighting gender-based violence, Morton told reporters that the UK will be co-leading  a global initiative to end violence against women.

“We have a long way to go to tackle this abuse, and the UK remain steadfastly committed to working with the WHO and UN Women, to eliminate violence against women and girls, which is why the UK is co-leading the new Generation Equality Global Action Coalition on gender based violence.”

The Gender Equality Forum (GEF) postponed last year due to the pandemic aims to “launch a set of concrete, ambitious, and transformative actions to achieve immediate and irreversible progress towards gender equality.”

Kicking off in Mexico later this month, GEF will propose a “targeted set of concrete , ambitious and immediate actions within the period of 2020-2025 to deliver tangible impact on gender equality.”

The UN agencies and its partners urged governments to honour their commitments in preventing violence through the improvements of services for victims, tackling economic inequalities, school and educational interventions as well as strengthening data collection on violence against women and girls.

“Every government should be taking strong, proactive steps to address this, and involving women in doing so”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Calling for collective action,  the WHO chief urged governments, individuals and communities to tackle the current  legal, social and economic discrimination that  “support harmful views of masculinity and condone violence against women.”