New data released by WHO and its partners has found that globally 1 in every 3 or around 736 million women experience violence. This number has largely remained unchanged over the past decade and shows how prevailing violence is. The figures include both physical and sexual violence by intimate partner as well as non-partner. 

“Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general. “But unlike Covid-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”

While intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women affecting around 641 million, 6% women reported being sexually assaulted by someone other than their husband or partner. Stigma around sexual violence means that this number could be an underreported one, experts said.

Younger women most at risk

1 in 4 young women aged 15-24 years who have been in a relationship will have experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-twenties. The data for this report comes from the largest study on the prevalence of violence against women conducted by the WHO between 2000 and 2018. 

Experts said these numbers do not capture the worsening of violence during the pandemic. Measures such as lockdowns meant that women were trapped with their abusive partners and their access to any support service was also likely disrupted. 

“We know that the multiple impacts of Covid-19 have triggered a “shadow pandemic” of increased reported violence of all kinds against women and girls,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women. “Every government should be taking strong, proactive steps to address this, and involving women in doing so.”

Women in developing countries hit disproportionately 

Women in low and lower-middle-income countries were the worst hit, the report found. An estimated 37% women living in poorest countries have experienced violence, with some countries reporting a prevalence as high as 50%. 

The regions of Oceania, Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest prevalence rates of violence among women in the 15-49 age group with the rates ranging from 33%-51%. The prevalence rates were lowest in Europe (16-23%), Central Asia (18%), Eastern Asia (20%) and South-Eastern Asia (21%). 

Violence is associated with increased risk of injuries, depression, anxiety disorders, unplanned pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections including HIV and many other health problems. Preventing violence requires addressing systemic economic and social inequalities, ensuring access to education and safe work, and changing discriminatory gender norms and institutions.

“To address violence against women, there’s an urgent need to reduce stigma around this issue, train health professionals to interview survivors with compassion, and dismantle the foundations of gender inequality,” said Claudia Garcia-Moreno of WHO. “Interventions with adolescents and young people to foster gender equality and gender-equitable attitudes are also vital.”