In the wake of International Women’s Day, the United Nations on Tuesday released a report on the largest-ever study of the prevalence of violence against women—which, as the new data show, “remains devastatingly pervasive and starts alarmingly young.”
The report reveals one in three females worldwide, or around 736 million women, have been subjected to physical or sexual violence, mostly by intimate partners. A quarter of females aged 15-24 years who have been in a relationship experience intimate partner violence by the time they reach their mid-twenties.
Conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) on behalf of a U.N. working group, the study is based on data from 2000 to 2018—meaning it doesn’t take into account how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has magnified the problem.
“Unlike Covid-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine.”
—Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO
“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 WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. “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,” he continued.
During a media briefing, Tedros noted some of the legal, economic, educational, and social tools that can help prevent future violence, from reforming discriminatory laws and strengthening rights and wages to implementing school programs and “challenging social norms that support harmful views of masculinity and condone violence against women.”
“And we can use clinical tools to provide quality care and support for women affected by violence,” he added, calling on people worldwide to promote prevention.
“The most powerful tool we have is ourselves,” he said. “We can all speak up to say that violence against women is never acceptable. We can all teach our kids that violence against women is never acceptable. And we can all treat the women in our lives with the respect and dignity they deserve—and that all people deserve.”
While the U.N. report makes clear that violence against women is widespread, impacting people in every nation, the data show women in low- and lower-middle-income countries are disproportionately affected—with an estimated 37% of women from the poorest countries enduring physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their life.
Oceania, Southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates of intimate partner violence among women aged 15-49; a third to half of women in those regions are survivors of such abuse.
During the #COVID19 pandemic, risks of violence increase due to:— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 9, 2021
❗️ More time at home with abusers
❗️ Rising stress
❗️ Isolation from social support networks
❗️ Limited access to critical services
👉 https://t.co/XjzTKOKeOT pic.twitter.com/WVWlWZRs5L
Experts warned last spring that the pandemic could lead to millions more cases of gender-based violence, child marriages, female genital mutilation, and unintended pregnancies due to lack of access to contraceptives and healthcare. By the time the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women came in November, after months of lockdowns and economic stress, women and allies held global rallies demanding an end to the “shadow pandemic.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, used that language Tuesday to discuss the public health crisis’ impact on female safety.
“It’s deeply disturbing that this pervasive violence by men against women not only persists unchanged, but is at its worst for young women aged 15-24 who may also be young mothers. And that was the situation before the pandemic stay-at-home orders. 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,” she said. “Every government should be taking strong, proactive steps to address this, and involving women in doing so.”
Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, a member of WHO’s Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research who leads the agency’s work on violence against women, emphasized that “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.”
“Interventions with adolescents and young people to foster gender equality and gender-equitable attitudes,” she said, “are also vital.”