Violence on women a 'global epidemic', says WHO report

World Health Organisation report says more than a third are victims of abuse amid controversy over incident involving UK chef Nigella Lawson

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 June, 2013, 3:33am

More than a third of all women are victims of physical or sexual violence, posing a global health problem of epidemic proportions, a report said yesterday.

The majority were attacked or abused by their husbands or boyfriends. Common problems included broken bones, bruises, pregnancy complications, depression and other mental illnesses, the World Health Organisation report said.

"Violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions," WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun said.

"The world's health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence."

Charlotte Watts, a health policy expert, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the report's authors, said violence was "an everyday reality for many, many women".

She said she was shocked by pictures this week showing British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being grabbed by the throat by her art collector husband Charles Saatchi, who has since been cautioned for assault.

"We don't know the details of what is going there, but it does illustrate this happens to all women - it's not just poor women, or women in a certain country. This really is a global issue," Watts said.

A British lawmaker yesterday questioned whether police may have treated Nigella Lawson's husband Saatchi too leniently.

Labour lawmaker Sandra Osborne asked in Parliament if there was one rule for the rich and famous and another rule for everyone else, with the caution sending the wrong message.

Yesterday's report, co-authored by Watts and WHO's Claudia Garcia-Moreno, found that the rate of domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where 37 per cent of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetime.

The rate was 30 per cent in Latin and South America and 23 per cent in North America. In Europe and Asia, it was 25 per cent. The report also found that 38 per cent of all women murder victims were killed by intimate partners, and 42 per cent of women who had been victims of physical or sexual violence by a partner had injuries as a result.

Garcia-Moreno pointed to recent high-profile rape cases in India and South Africa that have put a spotlight on the treatment of women. The brutal gang rape in December of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi sparked a global outcry and unprecedented protests in India demanding better policing of sex crimes. The woman later died.

"These kinds of cases raise awareness, which is important, and at the same time we must remember there are hundreds of women every day who are being raped on the streets and in their homes, but that doesn't make the headlines," Garcia-Moreno said.

The report found that violence against women was a root cause for a range of acute and chronic health problems, ranging from immediate injury to sexually transmitted infections, to HIV, to depression and stress- and alcohol-related disorders.

Women who suffered violence from their partners were 1.5 times more likely to get syphilis, chlamydia, or gonorrhoea. And in some regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, they were 1.5 times more likely to become infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

The WHO is issuing guidelines for health workers on how to help women suffering domestic or sexual abuse. They stress the importance of recognising when women may be at risk.

Additional reporting by Associated Press