Researchers found that 1 in 3 women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner in their lifetime. That violence, they said, starts early: One in 4 young women between 15 and 24 have already experienced intimate-partner violence before reaching their mid-20s.
The findings are relatively unchanged from the past decade, despite being part of the largest-ever study on the pervasiveness of violence against women led by the organization.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, called violence against women “endemic” in every country, a harm that has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Unlike covid-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine,” he said in a statement. “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.”
The report is important despite its unsurprising findings, because it shows how widespread violence against women is and highlights the need for more comprehensive research and policy changes, experts said.
The report includes data from 161 countries and areas between 2000 and 2018. Researchers noted that the pandemic has likely made women even more unsafe, because many have been forced to comply with stay-at-home measures or have lost access to crucial support services.
The publication of the study comes as other news released this week exemplifies the threats women face.
The United Nations and All-Party Parliamentary Group released a report Wednesday about women in the United Kingdom that found that 80 percent of women in the country have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. About 45 percent reported that they didn’t think reporting the incident to authorities would help.
Results of the study are ringing true in headlines as well, with the disappearance of 33-year-old Londoner Sarah Everard, who was last seen walking home March 3. Her case has united women in the U.K. to share their stories online about harassment from men.
The WHO report found that women in the poorest countries were unequally affected by violence — it’s estimated that 37 percent have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Researchers noted that in some countries, the prevalence of these types of assaults affected 50 percent of women. Oceania, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa regions reported the highest frequency of partner violence compared to Europe, Central Asia, Eastern Asia and Southeastern Asia.
Across the globe, 6 percent of women recorded sexual assault by a non-partner.
What’s missing from the WHO findings is the context of religion, race and ethnicity, according to Bernadette Brooten, professor of Christian studies and women’s and gender studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Brooten highlighted a 2013 United Nations survey of 10,000 men in Asian and the Pacific countries that found nearly half of the interviewed men reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner, with prevalence ranging from 26 percent to 80 percent across six countries. The prevalence of rape also varied from 10 percent to 62 percent. That report emphasizes the significance of looking at how culture and society influence attitudes about violence toward women, Brooten said.
The WHO report is also a reminder about the importance of changing the socioeconomic and legal status for women, according to Jessica Neuwirth, an international women’s rights lawyer and director of the Human Rights Program at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.
There are still active laws and policies across the world that discriminate against women and prohibit them from social practices and realities that would be beneficial to them, she said, noting that the United States still doesn’t have an equal rights amendment in the Constitution.
Neuwirth said studies, reports and findings similar to the WHO report have been in circulation since at least the 1970s, yet change has been slow to come.
“From my perspective, the words are all there,” she said. “What’s not there is the political will to change.”
The onset of the #MeToo movement has ushered in a wave of accountability and progress, but fundamental change has been moving as slow as molasses, she said.
Violence perpetrated against women is a matter that can have life-threatening consequences with or without the added risks of a pandemic, and the WHO’s latest report stresses that, Neuwirth said.
“Everyday we’re losing lives,” she said. “It’s life and death and a serious violation of human rights.”