In a Global First, Global Data on Violence Against Women

The World Health Organization today released what it calls the first-ever global study into the prevalence of violence against women.

The results are bracing. According to WHO, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced some type of sexual violence, most of them at the hands of an intimate partner, and nearly 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. In some regions, WHO says, it is nearly 38 percent.

Topping the regional list is WHO’s South-East Asia administrative region, which includes India, Bangladesh, and Thailand, where an estimated 37.7 percent of women can expect to be beaten or sexually assaulted by a spouse or intimate partner.

Source: World Health Organization
Source: World Health Organization

Recent outrages in India, which was galvanized by the fatal December gang-rape of a New Delhi college student, and in Brazil, which has also been shaken by a spate of high-profile sexual assault cases, have made news in the United States and Europe. But the epidemic of violence against women is by no means restricted to the global south.

In what WHO terms a “high-income” zone comprising the United States, Canada, members of the European Union, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, nearly a quarter of all women — an estimated 23.2 percent — suffer violence from an intimate partner.

In fact, women in the “high-income” countries have the highest likelihood of being sexually assaulted by a person who is not their spouse or partner, according to the study. An estimated 12.6 percent of women in these wealthy countries will be sexually assaulted in this manner during their lifetime, the report says.

Here is the study’s regional breakdown of the lifetime prevalence of physical and/or sexual violence against women by an intimate partner (with the individual countries supplying data in parentheses):

* Africa (Botswana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia,

Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda,

South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe) 36.6%

* Americas (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador,

El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua,

Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia) 29.8%

* Eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories) 37.0%

* Europe (Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova,

Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine) 25.4%

* South-East Asia (Bangladesh, Timor-Leste [East Timor], India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand) 37.7%

* Western Pacific (Cambodia, China, Philippines, Samoa, Viet Nam) 24.6

* High Income (see above) 23.2%


“These findings send a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in a press release issued before today’s announcement in Geneva, Switzerland. “We also see that the world’s health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence.”

The consequences of this violence are felt over course of the victim’s lifetime — and across generations. Women who have been beaten or raped by their partners report higher rates of health problems, WHO says.  Sixteen percent are more likely to have low birth-weight babies; they are more than twice as likely to have an abortion; are nearly twice as likely to experience depression; and in some regions they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV.

The report, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, was produced by WHO, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the South African Medical Research Council.

Here’s a video from India’s great Bell Bajao — Ring the Bell — campaign against domestic violence.


Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.