Trigger warnings: rape, sexual violence, domestic violence/abuse. The following data story builds upon the “Violence against women and girls – what the data tell us” data story on prevalence of trends in intimate partner violence.
Prevention is key for reducing gender-based violence (GBV) against women. But after violence happens, an effective response is key to mitigating the impact. Yet all too often, women stay silent and do not seek assistance from formal systems or individuals in authority positions.
GBV against women and help-seeking behavior
Data from 44 countries show that on average 1 in 2 women who have experienced any physical or sexual violence (49 percent) never sought help to stop violence, and never told anyone. Evidence from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania suggests that GBV survivors do not seek help due to fear or stigma resulting from socio-cultural norms and low expectations and/or fear they would be denied help. (See: Muuo et al 2020; Kawaguchi 2020; McCleary-Sills et all 2016).
Sometimes women stay silent until the violence becomes more severe. Women often do not seek help at the onset of violence because it could lead to further violence, social exclusion, being disowned by family, or being shamed and/or blamed.
When they ask for help, who do women turn to?
Who do women consider safe to turn to when they are experiencing gender-based violence? More often than not, it is people they know, rather than official services.
Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from 51 countries shows that nearly 2 in 3 women (64 percent) turn to their family, and 1 in 4 women (26 percent) turn to their partner’s family for help. As shown in the visual below, only two percent go to a social work organization, two percent to a medical professional, and nine percent to the police.
Women are much more likely to ask family for help than official services
% of women experiencing violence that turned to...
In the chart below, we spotlight a few countries—Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Mozambique, Pakistan, and Peru—for which data on help-seeking behavior was available at the individual level. Of these countries, only in Cambodia, all women who experienced any physical or sexual violence sought help from someone. In the other countries, the share of women across various age groups who did not seek help from anyone ranged from two-fifths for 30-44 year olds in Mozambique to two-thirds for 16-19 year olds in Pakistan.
For women seeking help from someone, a significant number sought help from family members. This ranged from one-fifth of teenagers in Pakistan to more than half of 55-59 year olds in Mozambique. These family members included their mothers, fathers, and in-laws. In Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Pakistan and Peru, only one percent of women or less across all age groups sought help from the police/military, medical personnel, lawyers or social service organizations. In Mozambique, between one and seven percent of women across all age groups sought such formal help—slightly higher but still relatively low.
Without the support they could get by seeking help, adolescents are particularly susceptible to internalizing damaging cultural norms around gender and power. Additionally, witnessing domestic abuse as a child can impact the likelihood of women becoming victims of violence in the future. A lack of services, a lack of trust in available services or a lack of trained or committed service providers are all likely reasons for the low numbers of women seeking help from formal institutions. (Odero et al 2014; Murphy, Ellsberg & Contreras-Urbina 2020)
A closer look: who did each age group turn to for help in ?
Helping survivors come forward
Women need to feel safe coming forward to gender-based violence services. To be truly accessible, services need to reduce the cultural, physical, or psychological barriers that discourage women from utilizing them. So, what are those barriers?
The visual below showcases the top reasons women did not seek help in a few countries. In Burkina Faso, a third of the women believe seeking help is of no use: ranging from one-third of 30-44 year olds to almost half of teenagers (15-19 year olds). Another third believe that violence is a part of life (30 percent). In Mozambique, two-fifths of women who did not seek help thought it would not happen again (ranging from over one-third of 35-44 year olds to half of 25-29 year olds). In Peru, one-third of women who did not seek help thought seeking help was unnecessary: ranging from one-fourth of 45-49 year olds to two-fifths of teenagers (15-19 year olds) and young adults (20-24 year olds). Finally in Pakistan, one-third of women who did not seek help considered violence as not serious: ranging from one-fourth of young adults (20-24 year olds) to half of teenagers (16-19 year olds).
A closer look: why didn’t each age group ask for help in ?
In general, support services can address the reasons why women do not seek help. Across Mozambique, 7 in 10 girls report knowing of sexual harassment and abuse cases in their school. The World Bank’s ‘Improving Learning and Empowering Girls in Mozambique’ project is one example of how targeted services in schools can support teenagers, encouraging survivors to report cases through formal channels.
The project aims to improve the schools’ processes that identify GBV cases and equip teachers to recognize and respond to instances of GBV. It targets specific communities that tend to be accepting of social norms conducive to gender-based violence.
So, what do effective survivor services look like?
The work doesn’t stop at making support services more accessible, they also need to be effective when survivors approach them. It’s a simple idea with powerful implications: with better services available, more women are likely to seek them out.
Investment is needed to build well-designed services that meet all survivors’ needs. Effective survivor services are targeted, preventative, backed by law, informed by evidence, and put the survivor in the center. (UN Women 2015, WHO 2018)
Case study: Intersectionality in Mozambique
It is likely that the two-fifths of the women who did not seek help for physical or sexual violence have also experienced conflict. In the Cabo Delgado region alone, more than 770,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have been forced to relocate due to conflict and over 200,000 of them (27 percent) are women. This vulnerable population of refugees fleeing conflict in Mozambique’s Northern Provinces is one example of a population that requires targeted care through an intersectional lens, accounting for their specific disadvantages.
A rapid assessment of Mozambique’s IDPs found that women were forced to walk long distances to access food, water, and services. This both increases their risk of sexual and gender-based violence and reduces their access to the services designed to support them.
Recognizing the unique needs faced by this vulnerable population, the World Bank has supported a project to strengthen GBV services in the Northern Provinces of Mozambique. The first stage of the intervention assesses the systems and mechanisms through which survivors are linked with the appropriate GBV services. Then the scheme trains health workers, police officers, teachers, social workers, and other staff to identify and refer potential victims of GBV. It also supports the acquisition of funding and equipment like rape and dignity kits, and the development of case management systems.
Case study: Health services in Cambodia
Evidence from Cambodia shows that all women experiencing violence do in fact seek help of some kind, but it is mostly from family or friends, not formal institutions. Providing more GBV-sensitive training can help raise the quality of formal health care services, which are often survivors’ first point of contact. In Cambodia, there exists a gap in trained GBV healthcare workers—as a result of a lack of GBV healthcare training—which has contributed to the lack of quality services.
In response, World Bank support has introduced training requirements for GBV into curricula for health professionals and added GBV courses in the new curriculum framework at medical institutions to ensure students acquire sufficient clinical skills for responding to GBV.
Call to action
Evidence shows that in many countries, women who have experienced any physical or sexual violence never sought help. While the reasons for why these women did not seek help vary across countries, it is clear that women often turn to family and friends rather than formal institutions.
Policy makers can leverage data to understand the scale of the problem and help the most vulnerable groups. That means tailoring GBV services to help adolescent girls and other marginalized groups and taking an intersectional approach. And when survivors are not accessing the services that they need, it means gathering data to find out why, going beyond business as usual to better meet the needs of survivors. If governments around the world prioritize enhancing services for GBV survivors today, they will not only help GBV survivors but also gain more insights from service records to better understand the GBV situation and ultimately improve policies and interventions to eradicate GBV.