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Intimate-Partner Violence Is Common

1/3 to 2/3 of World's Women Suffer Physical, Sexual Violence
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 5, 2006 -- In most of the world, 29% to 62% of women have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More often than not, the violence is severe. For half of these women, the abuse continues.

The appalling numbers come from a remarkable study led by World Health Organization researchers Claudia Garcia-Moreno, MD; Henrica A.F.M. Jansen, PhD; and colleagues. The researchers trained a small army of more than 500 female interviewers who met with more than 24,000 15-to 49-year-old women at 15 sites in 10 countries.

The women, randomly selected to represent the region in which they lived, spoke privately with the interviewers. The interviewers were armed with fake questionnaires in case a husband burst into the room. Sometimes they held decoy interviews with male household members to keep them busy while they spoke with the women.

"One of the very striking things we found during the study was that 20% to 60% of the women mentioned they had never talked with anybody else about this before," Jansen tells WebMD. "An interviewer in Peru said hearing all these horrible stories made her feel herself to be a vessel -- a container for capturing all these stories for women. She thought that was a huge responsibility."

The women's stories came in 14 different languages, but the message was the same.

"Women are at more risk from their intimate partners than from strangers or men in the street," Jansen says. "Four out of five women who report violence report abuse by a partner. It is said that the streets are not safe -- but it is the homes that are not safe for most women. This is still a very hidden problem."

Controlling Men, Abused Women

Overall, a woman's risk of ever having suffered physical or sexual violence ranged from 15% in the urban city of Yokohama, Japan, to 71% in the rural province of Butajira, Ethiopia. In most areas, this risk was between 29% and 62%.

In general, women in industrialized regions were less likely to report ongoing abuse than were women in rural areas. This suggests that women in these areas have more options for escaping abusive partners.

Women with more education and more income were less likely to report abuse. Even so, education and wealth do not protect women from intimate-partner abuse.

In most areas, there was more physical violence than sexual violence, although Jansen says it was harder for women to talk about sexual violence. Many of the women interviewed were surprised to find out that violence of any kind is unacceptable.

"We found, in countries where domestic violence is a part of daily life, that the interview for the first time made women realize that what they were undergoing was not normal," Jansen says. "A woman in Bangladesh said she thought every husband would beat his wife and have sex against her will."

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