Updated: Aug 4, 2021
The United Nations defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."
Intimate partner violence refers to behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors.
Sexual violence is "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting. It includes rape, defined as the physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body part or object, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching and other non-contact forms".
Factors associated with intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women
Intimate partner and sexual violence is the result of factors occurring at individual, family, community and wider society levels that interact with each other to increase or reduce risk (protective). Some are associated with being a perpetrator of violence, some are associated with experiencing violence and some are associated with both.
Risk factors for both intimate partner and sexual violence include:
lower levels of education (perpetration of sexual violence and experience of sexual violence);
a history of exposure to child maltreatment (perpetration and experience);
witnessing family violence (perpetration and experience);
antisocial personality disorder (perpetration);
harmful use of alcohol (perpetration and experience);
harmful masculine behaviors, including having multiple partners or attitudes that condone violence (perpetration);
community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women;
low levels of women’s access to paid employment; and
low level of gender equality (discriminatory laws, etc.).
Factors specifically associated with intimate partner violence include:
past history of exposure to violence;
marital discord and dissatisfaction;
difficulties in communicating between partners; and
male controlling behaviors towards their partners.
Factors specifically associated with sexual violence perpetration include:
beliefs in family honor and sexual purity;
ideologies of male sexual entitlement; and
weak legal sanctions for sexual violence.
Gender inequality and norms on the acceptability of violence against women are a root cause of violence against women.
Intimate partner (physical, sexual and psychological) and sexual violence cause serious short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems for women. They also affect their children’s health and wellbeing. This violence leads to high social and economic costs for women, their families and societies. Such violence can:
Have fatal outcomes like homicide or suicide.
Lead to injuries, with 42% of women who experience intimate partner violence reporting an injury as a consequence of this violence (3).
Lead to unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, gynaecological problems, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. WHO's 2013 study on the health burden associated with violence against women found that women who had been physically or sexually abused were 1.5 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection and, in some regions, HIV, compared to women who had not experienced partner violence. They are also twice as likely to have an abortion (3).
Intimate partner violence in pregnancy also increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies. The same 2013 study showed that women who experienced intimate partner violence were 16% more likely to suffer a miscarriage and 41% more likely to have a pre-term birth (3).
These forms of violence can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. The 2013 analysis found that women who have experienced intimate partner violence were almost twice as likely to experience depression and problem drinking.
Health effects can also include headaches, pain syndromes (back pain, abdominal pain, chronic pelvic pain) gastrointestinal disorders, limited mobility and poor overall health.
Sexual violence, particularly during childhood, can lead to increased smoking, substance use, and risky sexual behaviours. It is also associated with perpetration of violence (for males) and being a victim of violence (for females).
Impact on children
Children who grow up in families where there is violence may suffer a range of behavioral and emotional disturbances. These can also be associated with perpetrating or experiencing violence later in life.
Intimate partner violence has also been associated with higher rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity (through, for example diarrhoeal disease or malnutrition and lower immunization rates).
Social and economic costs
The social and economic costs of intimate partner and sexual violence are enormous and have ripple effects throughout society. Women may suffer isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children.