x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Violence against women: bruises of a global shame exposed

Physical and sexual attacks inside and outside of marriage are at epidemic levels, a World Health Organisation report shows, with 35 per cent of women having suffered.

Women activists in Hyderabad, India, shout slogans during a protest against the rape of a 5-year-old girl in New Delhi who later died. Some have blamed an ingrained tolerance of violence against women for the attack. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo
Women activists in Hyderabad, India, shout slogans during a protest against the rape of a 5-year-old girl in New Delhi who later died. Some have blamed an ingrained tolerance of violence against women for the attack. Mahesh Kumar A / AP Photo

It is, experts say, a "health problem of epidemic problems", but it is not a disease or a newly discovered virus.

It is violence inflicted on women.

The first international study of the prevalence of physical and sexual assaults shows a third of women worldwide have suffered beatings or worse in their daily lives.

And while Africa and South-East Asia have the worse records, in some cases with more than two out of five women reporting violence in the home, the picture is almost as bleak in the Middle East.

Data collected by the World Health Organisation in its Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes much of the Arab World, shows violence inside and outside of marriage afflicts the lives of 40 per cent of women.

The WHO based its survey on reports from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The UAE was not included in the survey.

The report, released at the end of last month, was compiled by the WHO in conjunction with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the South African Medical Research Council.

Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, said the findings needed to taken seriously and they sent "a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions".

"We also see that the world's health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence," Dr Chan said.It is the first time estimates have been released based on population data from such a wide spectrum of countries.

"Overall, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence," the 51-page document states. "While there are many other forms of violence that women may be exposed to, this already represents a large proportion of the world's women." It concludes that there is a clear need to increase efforts to prevent abuse and provide services for women experiencing it.

And even countries that did not supply data for the study needed to eliminate their tolerance for abuse of women and improve their methods of tackling it, the report says.

"The findings send a powerful message that violence against women is not a small problem that only occurs in some pockets of society, but is a global public health problem of epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action," it states.

Violence takes it toll in many ways, the report shows. Women who experienced what it calls "intimate-partner violence" have higher rates of depression, HIV, injury and death, and are more likely to have babies with low birth weights than those who are free of violence.

The Emro region is by no means alone when it comes to high prevalence. The highest rate for intimate-partner violence - at 37.7 per cent, or almost two in five women - was recorded in South-East Asia, using data from Bangladesh, East Timor, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The Africa region had a prevalence of 36.6 per cent, while in Europe it was calculated at 25.4 per cent.

The figures for abuse by a partner were compiled using 185 studies from 86 countries that met the inclusion criteria, and referred to girls and women over the age of 15.

In the Arab World, Egypt has acquired a grim reputation for sexual violence against women.

Last week Amnesty International reported on its blog post that women and girls protesting in the vicinity of Tahrir Square were being sexually attacked "time and time again".

This year the country's ministry of interior set up a special women-only force to help tackle sexual harassment and violence.

The WHO was unable to compile figures for violence outside the home in Egypt or the other Arab nations involved, but included them for the South-East Asian region, which covers India. The likelihood of a woman being subjected to sexual violence by a man other than her partner in her lifetime is about 5 per cent in India.

The country is facing tough questions about its record on this issue after the brutal gang-rape and beating of a young woman on a Delhi bus. She died two weeks later in hospital.

The culprits, apart from the bus driver who reportedly hanged himself, are facing trial for rape and murder. Many observers blamed an ingrained culture and tolerance of violence again women.

Types of violence against women in different countries are addressed in the report, which concludes that the evidence highlights the need to address economic and sociocultural factors."This also includes the importance of challenging social norms that support male authority and control over women and sanction or condone violence against women; reducing levels of childhood exposures to violence; reforming discriminatory family law; strengthening women's economic and legal rights; and eliminating gender inequalities in access to formal wage employment and secondary education."

After the report, the WHO released clinical and policy guidelines for the health sector's response to such violence.

It says healthcare workers need to more proactive when dealing with women showing symptoms that could be caused by abuse from a partner.

It also says healthcare workers, globally, need to be better trained in identifying and possible cases of abuse. "This new data shows that violence against women is extremely common," says Prof Charlotte Watts, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"We urgently need to invest in prevention to address the underlying causes of this global women's health problem."