A third of world’s women have been sexually or physically abused by a partner, says WHO

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 24 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4077
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

Violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions,” says a report from the World Health Organization.1

The study of the effects on health of violence against women found that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner. It also found that, globally, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than their partner.

Women in South East Asia were most at risk of violence from a partner, with 38% of women there having experienced abuse, followed by 37% of women in WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean and Africa region. The Western Pacific region and Europe had the lowest prevalence, at around 25%.

Women in western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan were more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner—13% of all women, compared with 5% in South East Asia. However, the authors said that the figures should be treated with caution because of low rates of reporting in some regions.

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

Claudia Garcia Moreno, one of the report’s authors and a specialist in gender, reproductive rights, sexual health, and adolescence at WHO, said that the figures were “shockingly high.”

She said, “Different prevalence figures have been floating around for a while—anything from one in three to one in six [women who have been abused by a partner]. This is the first time we have pulled together all the existing data and looked at it in a systematic way.”

The authors undertook a systematic review of all the global datasets on violence against women and looked at data from 81 countries. They found that 38% of the women killed globally were killed by their partners. In South East Asia 55% of women murdered were killed by their partner, compared with 41% of women in high income regions, and 40% in Africa.

The report looked at a limited range of health effects, chosen because of the data available. Compared with women who had not been abused by their partners, women who had been were 16% more likely to have had a low birthweight baby, more than twice as likely to have had an abortion, and almost twice as likely to have experienced depression. In some regions they were 50% more likely to have been infected with HIV.

Another of the report’s authors, Charlotte Watts, director of the Gender, Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said, “The figures showing the extent to which women are murdered by their partners takes home the message that violence can be very severe in terms of morbidity and mortality.”

She added, “We see associations between violence and poor health not only in relation to women currently in violent relationships but also among women who have been in [such] relationships in the past, particularly in terms of mental health impacts. Some of the consequences can be long lasting.”

The authors urge policy makers to act, and WHO has published guidelines alongside the report aimed at improving health providers’ response.

Garcia Moreno said that the guidelines were highlighting three issues: firstly, that doctors and other healthcare workers should be aware of how violence against women related to certain clinical conditions; secondly, that all providers should be able to provide a first line response that “in many cases will be an empathic ear and non-judgmental support”; and thirdly, that health facilities should be the first point of entry to other services, such as legal services.

She added, “One of the things we want to emphasise is the importance of training and integrating these issues into the medical curriculum. In many countries [doctors] are graduating without any understanding of these issues.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4077


  • Editorial: Responding to intimate partner and sexual violence against women (BMJ 2013;346:f3100, doi:10.1136/bmj.f3100). Podcast: The authors of the editorial give practical advice at