Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

A Global Endemic: One in Three Women is a Victim of Physical or Sexual Violence

It’s been one year to the day since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic as COVID-19 continued to surge and spreadAnd while much of the world has shifted to mitigate the spread of the disease, some of those shifts have left people increasingly exposed to pervasive dangers that existed before and remain during the pervasiveness of the pandemic.

“Measures taken to address the pandemic, such as lockdown and social distancing rules, have led to an increase in reports of domestic violence—in particular intimate partner violence against women—to helplines, police forces, and other service providers,” said the authors of a WHO report, Global, regional, and national estimates for intimate partner violence against women and global and regional estimates for non-partner sexual violence against women.  

The report is based on data collected between 2000 and 2018. It found that one in three women (an estimated 736 million women worldwide) is a victim of physical or sexual violence, “a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade,” the WHO said in a press release on 9 March. 

The organization noted, however, that given historic and pervasive stigmas, as well as other reasons for failing to report sexual abuse, under-reporting is likely to have occurred and the real numbers are probably higher.  

“Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “But unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine.” 

The report was published one day after International Women’s Day and on behalf of a special working group within the UN. The data within it indicated that “this violence starts relative early in life and gradually declines with age.” 

The WHO estimated that one in four women between the ages of 15 and 24 will be subjected to intimate partner violence (IPV) by the time they reach their mid-twenties. Also, the highest rates of IPV in the past 12 months were for women in the same age group. 

Another high-risk demographic among women are those living in low- and lower-middle income countries. The WHO estimated that as many as 37 percent of female residents in the world's poorest countries were the victims of physical and/or sexual IPV; in some of those countries the rate was more than 50 percent.  

Reuters spoke with one of the authors of the report, Claudia Garcia-Moreno, who pointed to parts of Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, and southern Asia as regions where more than half of women encounter violence at least once in their lifetime.   

Tens of thousands of protestors marched throughout Mexico City, Mexico, on 8 March to spotlight the nation’s increasing rates of violence against women, including femicideand government inaction. While the rally was initially peaceful, police accused some persons of throwing petrol bombs and setting fire to parts of the rally’s route, including part of the National Palace and the president’s residence, according to the BBC. 

Wealthier countries are also seeing increasing cracks in the public’s support for law enforcement because of violence against women. A YouGov poll from UN Women UK found that almost all women (97 percent) between the ages of 18 and 24 said they had been sexually harassed. Across all age groups, 80 percent of women in the United Kingdom reported they had been subjected to sexual harassment in a public space. 

The Guardian had exclusive access to the survey’s findings. Its analysis found that respondents also expressed “a damning lack of faith in the UK authorities’ desire and ability to deal with sexual harassment—96 percent of respondents did not report incidents, with 45 percent saying it would not change anything. Among those who said the event was not serious enough to report were women who had been groped, followed, and coerced into sexual activity, said UN Women UK.” 

Along with encountering abuse and violence in public spaces, women are also experiencing it at home and online. In an analysis of the treatment of 13 different female politicians online, a Wilson Center study found that more than 92 percent of them were subject to gendered abuse. Nine of the 13 subjects were also the target of gendered disinformation narratives, which “were racist, transphobic, or sexual in nature.”  

The study, Malign Creativity: How gender, sex, and lies are weaponized against women online, was conducted from 1 September through 9 November 2020. It found that online attackers often used sex- and race-based narratives, indicating an increased threat for women of color. 

On Twitter, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (who during the study was a U.S. senator and running mate for U.S. presidential nominee, Joe Bidenreceived 78 percent of the total amount of recorded keywords associated with either abuse or disinformation. 

The authors of the study also outlined three case studies where harassment campaigns against female journalists were blatantly generated by the state-sponsored attackers from Iran, China, and Russia. They found that “when this societal vulnerability is weaponized by adversaries, it becomes a threat to national security. ...In all three case studies, state-sponsored entities deployed false or misleading narratives that played on gendered or sexualized narratives against prominent journalists, unleashing what interviewees called a ‘tsunami’ or online ‘terrorism’ and abuse against them.” 

While IPV remains prevalent, partly in thanks to stigma and fear, these online attacks use coded language, memes, and other means of avoiding flags for review by social media companies. Termed “malign creativity,” it presents “perhaps the greatest challenge to detecting, challenging, and denormalizing online abuse, whether gendered and sexualized disinformation or more broadly,” the Wilson study said.  

These forms of abuse impact women’s health long after the attacks have ended, and are often linked to depression, anxiety, unplanned pregnancy, and other health issues, according to the UN.  

“To address violence against women, there’s an urgent need to reduce stigma around this issue, train health professionals to interview survivors with compassion, and dismantle the foundations of gender inequality,” Garcia-Moreno said. “Interventions with adolescents and young people to foster gender equality and gender-equitable attitudes are also vital.” 

For more on ensuring the safety of employees who may be victims of IPV while they work remote, check out “Answering to Abuse,” a Security Management online exclusive.