Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health

Violence against women and girls – a human rights and public health problem

The 25th of November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of an annual campaign: The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The international movement, which had its origins at the Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991, will see individuals and organisations calling for an end to violence against women and girls. This year’s theme is Orange the Word: #HearMeToo and the colour orange will decorate buildings and landmarks across the world, representing a brighter future free from gender-based violence.

Unfortunately that is far from today’s reality. For too long, violence against women and girls has been allowed by a patriarchal culture of stigma and silencing women. Despite recent campaigns such as #MeToo, #TimesUp and #Niunamenos, violence against women remains a global public health problem, requiring urgent and ongoing action. What these campaigns have achieved is drawing international attention to the problem so that gender-based violence is no longer invisible.

Globally over 1 in 3 women have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence; at least 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. This is not only a human rights issue, but a pandemic threat to the health of women, contributing to poorer physical, reproductive and mental health. Action is needed to protect the rights of women and girls to allow them to participate in society and maintain good health.

In order to understand and shed light on the magnitude of this problem, a landmark report was released by the World Health Organization (WHO), co-authored by the Gender Violence & Health and MARCH Centre researcher, Heidi Stöckl amongst other staff from the WHO, LSHTM and the South African Medical Research Council. The report was the first of its kind: a global systematic review of scientific data recording the prevalence of intimate partner and non-partner sexual violence against women.

The report shed an interesting light on how widespread violence against women and girls is, and like many public health problems, the biggest burden is on low- and middle-income countries. But not all regions are effected equally- prevalence estimates of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence among women in relationships range from 24.6% (in the Western Pacific) to 37.7% (in South-East Asia). But no part of the world is exempt from this problem, with the prevalence in high-income countries estimated at 23.2%.

The framing of gender-based violence as a public health problem means we can delve into the far-ranging health impacts associated with it, which include

  • Sexual health (including the transmission of HIV and other STIs)
  • Reproductive health (including induced abortion, low birth weight and prematurity)
  • Mental health (including harmful alcohol use, depression and suicide)
  • Injuries (both non-fatal and homicides).

For example, women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their partners compared to those who have not are at least 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, almost twice as likely to experience depression, and, in some WHO regions, more than 1.5 times as likely to become infected with HIV.

As well as detailing these consequences, the report highlights the role of the health sector in primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. WHO has released clinical and policy guidelines on how individual health-care providers and the health sector at large can strengthen their response to this public health threat. For example, WHO doesn’t recommend laws requiring that cases of partner violence are reported without the woman’s consent, and instead suggest that providers inform women of their legal rights and offer to report if consent is given.

Women are no longer prepared to be silenced on this issue. We have worked hard to bring gender-based violence out of the darkness and it’s now getting the attention it deserves. But simply talking about violence against women is not enough – it is time to take action. Prevention and management programs need to be tested and scaled up. Through health-care and other sectors, we can all act to ensure women and girls aren’t denied a life free of violence- a basic human right.

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