In many settings Violence against women (VAW) has been perceived as a legal or cultural issue or as an event that takes place in the private sphere. Awareness of VAW as a health problem is not that common. It is a violation of human rights but also a large public health problem. Hopefully new evidence on the magnitude of a range of health effects associated with exposure to VAW will help counteract this situation.
For the first time, global and regional estimates of the prevalence of partner- and non-partner violence against women have been made available. These two forms of VAW have important effects on women’s physical, sexual and reproductive, and mental health.
Evidence shows that women experiencing intimate partner violence are significantly more likely to experience serious health problems than women who have not experienced such violence. From violence resulting in injuries and death (38% of all murdered women --in contrast to 6% of all murdered men- are killed by an intimate partner!) to significantly worse sexual and reproductive or mental health outcomes. For example, women living in an abusive environment are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, more than twice as likely to have an abortion, almost twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety. And, in some regions, they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
As sensitive as the issue of VAW may be, it is important to take an active role in publicising the extent of the problem and how exposure to violence is an important determinant of poor health for women. WHO’s new clinical and policy guidelines aim to raise awareness on VAW and provide standards for policy makers and health care providers. How can the health sector take action? Responses may range from identifying key entry points for addressing violence such as the sexual and reproductive health services to including it in the training curricula of health professionals.
VAW is widespread around the globe, but variations in prevalence across communities, countries or regions prove that progress can be achieved. If in global health we work to tackle big problems VAW confronts us with one of the largest ones: it affects 1 out of 3 women globally.