Violence Against Women Reaches “Epidemic Proportions”

Nov 22, 2014 at 12:36 PM ET

We are failing our women and girls.

According to a new series of studies by Lancet, global efforts to combat violence against females have been inadequate, leading to what the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling a “global public health problem of epidemic proportions.”

Worldwide, 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner and 7 percent will be sexually assaulted by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Additionally, violence takes on other forms, including female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, forced marriage, sex trafficking and rape. And all of these issues have been shown to have a substantial impact on women’s health, causing physical and mental trauma (such a PTSD), increased exposure to STDs, HIV and AIDS, and various reproductive health problems.

While the series acknowledges that many countries have made progress toward promoting gender equality and criminalizing violence against women—as we saw in India last year when it announced a tougher stance on rape—legal action and rhetoric don’t often translate into tangible change.

“We definitely need to strengthen services for women experiencing violence, but to make a real difference in the lives of women and girls, we must work toward achieving gender equality and preventing violence before it even starts,” says professor Charlotte Watts, founding director of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and co-author of the series. “No magic wand will eliminate violence against women and girls. But evidence tells us that changes in attitudes and behaviors are possible, and can be achieved within less than a generation.”

The key, the authors argue, is to work with both the victims and perpetrators of violence to transform deeply entrenched societal norms—to ultimately help men and boys change their attitudes toward women. In addition, violence toward women should be characterized as a public health issue, and not just a criminal justice concern.

“Health care providers are often the first point of contact for women and girls experiencing violence,” says Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, a physician at the WHO and series’ co-author. “Early identification of women and children subjected to violence and a supportive and effective response can improve women’s lives and well-being, and help them to access vital services. Health care providers can send a powerful message—that violence is not only a social problem, but a dangerous, unhealthy and harmful practice—and they can champion prevention efforts in the community.”

The series concludes by urging governments, lawmakers and health officials to take a series of five actions to improve the lives of girls and women around the world:

  • Allocate resources to address violence
  • Change laws, policies and institutions that discriminate against women and promote gender inequality
  • Invest in promoting equality among the sexes, non-violence behavior and survivor support free of stigma
  • Strengthen the roles of all sectors of society (health, security, education, justice and others) in preventing violence against women and encourage them to work together
  • Support research to study which interventions are the most effective and how to turn those findings into action

“We now have some promising findings to show what works to prevent violence,” says series coordinator Dr. Cathy Zimmerman, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Our upcoming challenge is to expand this evidence on prevention and support responses to many more settings and forms of violence. Most importantly, we urgently need to turn this evidence into genuine action so that women and girls can live violence-free lives.”