The worst of pandemics: 1 in 3 women experience sexual or physical violence at least once

One, two,…

In Yemen, Rima* was married when she was 15. The year civil war erupted in Yemen. For most of her 5 years of marriage, she spent chained by her husband to a wall in their home. “He didn’t treat me as a wife, he treated me as a slave”, says Rima.

One, two,…

One early morning in Afghanistan Fatima has started the day by ingesting rat poison in an attempt to end her life. “She drank some water with the rat killer,” said her mother-in-law, seated at the bedside holding Fatima’s hand. “She suddenly fell down and we were all crying. I begged her, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

One, two,…

Moima Yapazuo sits in a chair in her home in Monrovia, Liberia. She is confused and doesn’t recognize the faces of her children who sit in front of her. Moima survived a jealous attack of her husband. On Christmas night he hit her with an ax on the head while she was asleep and escaped. 

What is the story?

One in four women and girls around the world have been physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner - says largest-ever study about violence against women, conducted by World Health Organization. More globally around  736 million and 852 million, or 1 in 3 women, have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. 

Around a quarter of girls and women, who'd been in a relationship by the age of 19 have already experienced physical or sexual violence, with the highest rates among 30- to 39-year-olds, the report found.

Levels of violence were higher in low- and middle-income countries. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa had some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence among women and girls aged 15 to 49.

That number has remained largely unchanged over the past decade, WHO said.

Lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence among women aged 15-49

That’s what data is saying. How to analyze these data points? I would say with care. 

Even though this new WHO report is based on data covering 161 countries, confirming significant improvements from 83 countries and areas that had conducted a survey by 2010 - there are still big challenges with data quality, availability, and comparability among regions and countries. 

Some countries and areas still do not have any data and others only have one or two data points, which may be more than 10 years old. 

Other important challenges include standardization, measurement and reporting of the data on intimate partner violence, and these are even greater with non-partner sexual violence data.

Multiple reports confirm that obtaining reliable data on violence is a complex task, particularly for intimate partner violence. The private, intimate context in which this violence often takes place means the problem cannot be directly observed.

Sexual violence remains one of the most taboo and stigmatizing forms, and hence continues to be vastly underreported.

There are also methodological challenges and biases that come from religious and family structures and habits in many societies. Using direct methods of questioning implies asking women about the violence they suffered. Experts say very often interviewees don’t acknowledge that “a certain experience represents an act of violence or abuse”, because they view such a situation as normal

Authors of the WHO report confirm that with more “comprehensive measures, the prevalence rates of sexual violence experienced by women and girls would likely be much higher than those presented in this report”.

For example, in different studies, World Health Organization says that almost 90% of Afghan women have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetime.

In 2013 UNFPA  acknowledged that due to challenges with data collection – good data on violence against women and girls does not exist anywhere globally. 

The challenges are even bigger in emergency contexts. Scarcity of resources and restrained access to health care limits the number of reported survivors of the violence. In the context of the conflict in addition to intimate partner violence, new forms of sexual violence and different types of perpetrators need to be taken into account. In the conflict, armed men often take advantage of the insecurity of those displaced by the violence; for instance, 83% of displaced people in Yemen are women and children.

“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 Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general.

The recent pandemic of COVID-19 brought new attention to the importance of addressing violence against women. Measures taken to address the pandemic, such as lockdown and distancing rules, have led to an increase in reports of domestic violence – in particular intimate partner violence against women.

Doctors in Afghanistan say the case of Fatima’s poisoning has become all too common – especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Definitive statistics aren’t available. But at this hospital alone, doctors estimate there was one attempted suicide case every other day as coronavirus infections escalated in May and June. The real figure is likely to be far higher, as many women do not make it to the hospital. 

Measuring violence is a sensitive endeavor under any circumstance and established standards are unachievable during the pandemic restrictions. Social distancing limits the ability of researchers to travel, and women likely cannot be interviewed privately and confidentially, especially if they are isolated inside their homes with their abusers. Access to essential services is limited or is being administered online rather than in person.

Some reports indicate that calls to domestic violence hotlines, police, and shelters are increasing during the outbreak. In February, one helpline in Singapore registered a 33% increase in calls compared with the amount received during that month last year. In Kosovo, the Ministry of Justice reported a 17% jump in cases of gender-based violence in March, compared with the same period in 2019, according to UNFPA.

In Mexico, the national network of women shelters saw a 60% increase in the number of calls for help while in India, the National Commission for Women has recorded a more than twofold rise in domestic violence against women complaints. European member states of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have recorded a 60% increase in emergency calls related to gender-based violence compared to April 2019.

Why care? 

In 2010 and in 2013 global studies established nearly the same results on violence against women and demanded urgent action. In 2021 broader data confirms the results and raises the question regarding the action. 

According to OECD data, funding to address violence against women has increased significantly over the past five years.  However, despite violence against women called "the most widespread and persistent human rights violation" in the world,  this amounted to only 0.33% of the total DAC country budget. 

“It’s a pittance when you consider the magnitude of the problem, when you consider the prevalence, when you consider the millions of women and their children that are affected,” said García-Moreno.

Despite UN commitments to spend more from its emergency fund to address the issue, local NGOs and activists say that they “need for this money to be directly delivered”. Hayat Mirshad, co-director of feminist collective Fe-Male in Lebanon called for it “to be spent based on the needs of communities, not priorities prescribed by UN agencies, international organizations or donors”. 

The local support centers like one where Rima from Yemen got when her relative helped her escape from her husband rely 100% on support from the UN funding. Gamil Gemayel, the manager at this center says that the funding '“has been cut back because of a lack of donor support for the UN’s Yemen programme”.

Since it opened in 2016, the center has treated 2,250 women and children. But the pressures on its services are huge and growing, Gemayel says, estimating that around 80% of women in the area have suffered some trauma as a result of the war.

What to do?

  • Support Girls Not Brides to stop child marriages across the globe.

  • Learn more about the campaigns of GBV Prevention Network and join to help to prevent violence against women in the Horn, East & Southern Africa.

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