Trigger warnings: rape, sexual violence, domestic violence/abuse.
Gender-based violence takes many forms: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Examples include female genital mutilation, killing in the name of so-called ‘honor’, murder, forced and early marriage, and sex trafficking. Two of the most prevalent types of violence that women experience are intimate partner violence (IPV) and non-partner sexual violence (NPSV).
Almost one in three women across the world have experienced one or both of these forms of violence at least once in their lifetime. This story presents the latest findings based on the WHO study published in 2021 that estimated global and regional prevalence of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence against women.
Slow and steady progress in building the evidence base
As prevalent as violence against women is, building the global evidence base on it has been a slow process.
It was not until long ago that women’s rights to bodily integrity were fully recognized and enshrined in international law. The United Nations’ (UN) first Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) wasn’t published until 1979, recording the UN’s action plan on gender equality. Violence against women was officially added as a form of gender-based discrimination in the updated 1992 version, recognizing this as a violation of women’s human rights (OHCHR).
Violence against women was first recognized as a violation of human rights in 1992.
Data on gender based violence, and sexual violence in particular, has been extremely important in putting this development issue at the center of gender equality efforts. With support from the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), countries have significantly scaled up efforts to collect data on violence against women. Whereas in 2010 only 82 countries had survey data available on the subject, that number has since risen to 161 (WHO 2021).
The new World Bank Gender Data Portal, curates these data, making them accessible to policymakers, alongside research-informed resources on tackling the problem. The first step in designing essential prevention and support services for survivors of gender based violence is understanding the full magnitude of the problem. Who is experiencing violence? When is violence most likely to occur? And where?
Here is what the data tell us about gender based violence perpetrated by partners and non-partners.
Intimate partner violence
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) includes psychological, sexual, and physical violence committed by a current or former intimate partner or husband. All IPV statistics refer to ‘ever-partnered’ women. This means that the denominator for calculating these estimates only includes women who have ever been in an intimate relationship or in a marriage.
More than 1 in 4 women (26%) aged 15 years and older have suffered violence at the hands of their partners at least once since the age of 15. Applying this percentage to the 2018 population data from World Population Prospects, the WHO estimates that 641 million women have been affected. And an estimated 245 million (or 10% of women ages 15 and above) have experienced IPV in the last 12 months alone.
245 million women ages 15 and above have experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12 months alone.
These estimates are large, yet the true figures are likely to be even larger because of the difficulties women face in being open about experiences of violence. Evidence shows that violence from an intimate partner can often go unrecorded, due to social stigma and women not wanting to make things worse for themselves (WHO).
Women in every single country where data are collected have experienced IPV in the last year.
The two regions with the highest-known prevalence of IPV are Sub-Saharan Africa, where 33% of women aged 15–49 years have suffered IPV in their lifetime and 20% in the last year alone, and South Asia, where 35% of women in the same age bracket have experienced it in their lifetime and 19% in the last year.
Intimate partner violence affects women in every country
Adolescent girls are more at risk than adult women
Young women aged 15 to 19 are the most affected by IPV. By the time they are 19 years old, almost 1 in 4 adolescent girls (24%) who have been in a relationship have already been physically, sexually, or psychologically abused by a partner (WHO).
By the time they are 19 years old, 1 in 4 adolescent girls who have been in a relationship will already have been physically, sexually, or psychologically abused by a partner.
IPV among teenagers is most common in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: 1 in 5 of them have experienced IPV in the last 12 months. And in some regions, such as East Asia and the Pacific, teenagers aged 15 to 19 are three times more likely than women over 45 to face IPV.
Adolescent girls and young women are most affected by intimate partner violenceExperienced IPV in the last 12 months
Non-partner sexual violence
In addition to violence from intimate partners, non-partner sexual violence (NPSV) poses a risk to women’s safety and bodily integrity. NPSV refers to acts of sexual violence committed by any person that is not a current or former husband or male intimate partner. NPSV can be perpetrated by a family member, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. Since all women can be exposed to this type of violence, the denominator for calculations includes all women and not only those who have ever been married or had an intimate partner.
Worldwide, an estimated 6% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years have been subject to sexual violence from a non-partner at least once since age 15.
6% of women worldwide have been subject to sexual violence from a non-partner.
The reported occurrence of NPSV is very different to intimate partner violence. It is more common in higher-income countries, especially Australia and New Zealand, where it has affected 19% of women, and North America, where 15% of women have been affected (WHO). In contrast, the estimated prevalence rates in Southern Asia (2%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (6%) are much lower.
However, these estimates need to be interpreted with caution. This form of violence is also stigmatized, and in traditional or patriarchal societies, survivors are often blamed and so might avoid disclosure to reduce potential consequences. As such, actual rates are likely to be much higher than estimated for low- and middle-income countries (WHO).
Drivers of sexual violence
The drivers of violence against women are complex and multi-faceted. Research has identified several factors at the individual, family, community, and national level that are associated with higher risks of experiencing IPV.
Growing up in an abusive household can create a cycle of violence. Studies show that boys who witness their mothers being abused are more likely to become perpetrators of IPV later in life and girls who witness the same are twice as likely to experience IPV in adulthood (Kishor and Johnson 2004). Experience of childhood family aggression communicates the acceptability of family aggression, increasing the likelihood of its occurrence in the next generation (Kalmuss, D. 1984).
A woman’s risk of experiencing IPV differs by type of marriage. Polygamous marriage (where one person has multiple spouses) and getting married before the age of 18 each increase the odds by 22%. A husband that often drinks to excess is also dangerous, increasing a woman’s risk fivefold (Voice and Agency report).
A husband that drinks to excess increases a woman’s risk of intimate partner violence fivefold.
Cultural norms, laws, and individual attitudes are deeply intertwined and shape the acceptability of violence against women. In countries where IPV is outlawed, women’s acceptance of it is lower, and fewer women experience violence (Voice and Agency report). In contrast, in countries such as Guinea, Mali and Timor-Leste, more than 3 in 4 people think that wife beating is justified, for as little as burning the food or going out without telling their husband. Women who agree with these justifications for wife beating are 45% more likely to experience violence (Voice and Agency report).
Sexual violence is more prevalent in areas experiencing conflict. In these situations, unequal gender norms can be predominant and unchallenged. Other unstable situations, such as displacement and natural disasters, can also increase sexual violence. For example, a multi-country study found that forcibly displaced women in Colombia and Liberia were at 40% and 55% greater risk, respectively, of experiencing IPV in the past year compared to non-displaced women (World Bank).
Consequences of gender based violence
Violence causes lifelong damages to women, affecting their physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health.
Physical consequences associated with experiencing IPV include acute injuries, chronic pain, gastrointestinal illness, gynaecological problems, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, a two- to three-fold increased risk of depression (Beydoun, Hind A et al., World Bank), and even suicide (Devries, Karen et al.).
IPV has severe consequences for women’s reproductive control and health. Two decades of research have documented that IPV is linked to adverse reproductive outcomes for women and girls. In some studies, women subjected to IPV are twice as likely to report an unintended pregnancy than women who do not experience violence in their relationships (Silverman and Raj, 2014). One study found that women in Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan who have experienced IPV not only had higher risk of unintended pregnancies, but also a higher risk of their last pregnancy ending in abortion or an unwanted baby (USAID).
A global pandemic requiring local solutions
The data are clear: gender based violence is a pandemic. Thirty years since the landmark UN CEDAW commitment to end all forms of violence against women and girls, the problem remains immense. Understanding the prevalence of sexual violence and associated risk factors, however, is only the first step in developing essential prevention and support services for survivors.
The challenge is to put those data into action to help women and girls (World Bank). Combining data sources and examining multiple risk factors can help understand why violence against women and girls is still so pervasive.
Gender based violence is more prevalent when there are no legal consequences, sexist and patriarchal cultural norms, and in humanitarian emergencies or conflict. Younger people are more at risk, as are girls who grow up in abusive households. Women who married before 18 or are one of many wives are also more at risk.
Addressing these risk factors will require a close look at local circumstances as effective prevention and survivor services are built on contextual knowledge. An upcoming data story will look at successful interventions and how they potentially enable better outcomes for survivors of gender based violence. Such initiatives and investments are fundamental for effective protection for women and girls against violence.
Note: Portrait within header image from Cavan-Images/Shutterstock.com.