“He always hit me in the stomach, chest, and head,” said Amina, an Egyptian mother of four, describing the domestic violence her husband perpetrated for nearly 20 years. “It happened every day. I used to lock myself in a room for a week to stay away from him. He kept yelling. When I opened the door he came in and beat me.”
Thanks to staggering new data revealed by the World Health Organization this week, we now know that about one-third of all women worldwide suffer like Amina. The World Health Organization released the first comprehensive, global review of studies on physical and sexual violence against women.
Here are the five biggest lessons we learn from it:
Physical and sexual violence against women is more common than most health risks that affect women most, such as breast cancer. An estimated 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner, or sexual violence by a stranger. The World Health Organization calls this a public health problem of epidemic proportions.
Domestic violence truly happens everywhere. Though there are clear differences between regions, the World Health Organization statistics—and Human Rights Watch’s work around the world—show the global nature of this human rights abuse.
As a woman, you’re more likely to be murdered by your partner than by a complete stranger. The World Health Organization report shows that 38 percent of all murders of women were committed by intimate partners (as opposed to 6 percent of murders of men). In the United States, other data also show that women are more likely to be murdered by a partner than by a stranger.
The consequences of violence on women’s health are profound. Globally, 42 percent of women who have been abused suffered physical injuries, the World Health Organization report found. Human Rights Watch has heard the same in thousands of interviews with women victims of violence around the world. We also know from our research in Colombia, India, Uganda, and elsewhere that women still face barriers to accessing health care for such injuries.
In addition to the physical damage, violence also has severe psychological consequences. For example, the report found that survivors of partner violence are twice as likely to suffer from depression.
So what needs to happen next? First, these statistics and the work of human rights and women’s organizations around the world show the importance of accessible, non-discriminatory, and adequate health services for all women and girls. To address this, the World Health Organization has developed new guidelines for the health sector, which call for women-centered care, better training for health workers, and comprehensive care including contraception. Besides this, Human Rights Watch’s work has shown that we need accountability in health systems to address health system failings and monitor progress.
However, a better health response is not enough. We need to get the numbers down, and we know that requires advancement of women’s rights more broadly. Governments should invest more in prevention, which should include challenging social norms that discriminate against women, strengthening women’s economic rights, and ending discrimination in the workplace and education.
Crucially, governments also have to improve the police response to violence against women. A persistent lack of access to justice and professional response by police fuels a culture of impunity, as our work in Belgium, Afghanistan, the United States, South Africa, Canada and many other countries has shown.
Amina was courageous enough to seek government help for the violence in her case. But she said the police in her town once hold her husband, “It’s ok, let her come. We’ll throw the reports in the trash.” Her treatment at a public hospital was no better. “I’ve been to the hospital many times,” she said. “The nurses and doctors were surprised that I was upset that my husband does this. They said, ‘So what if your husband beats you? It’s normal. Why make a fuss out of it. After all, he’s your husband and the father of your kids.’”
The new World Health Organization data should be a call to action for all governments to prevent abuse of women like Amina, and to take immediate steps to ensure that all survivors can access dignified health, justice, and social services.