A Call To Action: New Legislation Will Address Findings From WHO Study

In a critically important study released late last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that domestic and sexual violence are serious public health problems worldwide. Based on interviews with 24,000 women around the world, it found that one-fifth to three-quarters of women had experienced physical or sexual violence since age 15, with most of it inflicted by male partners. The World Health Organization shared the findings of its Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women with congressional leaders and staff in May.

Intimate partner violence is common, the study found, and its consequences – particularly for women’s health – can be devastating. They include HIV/AIDS, with women now the fastest growing group of victims of the epidemic. Sexual violence and an inability to negotiate safer sex greatly increase women’s vulnerability. Pregnancy is also a time of enormous risk, with violence often continuing or escalating.

“We found that women’s greatest risk of violence is from a partner,” said Claudia Garcia-Moreno, Department of Gender, Women and Health, World Health Organization and the study’s overall coordinator. “Many women internalize social norms that justify abuse. Many think, for instance, that a man is justified in beating his wife if she disobeys him or refuses to have sex.”

“Our biggest surprise,” Garcia-Moreno added, “was learning how hidden the problem is and how few women contact formal support services. In fact, many women had never told anyone about the violence in their lives before we asked them for this study. We need to do more to change social norms that justify violence against women.”

Action Needed

“The depth and scope of the global landmark study is remarkable,” Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) said. “This report reveals a global picture of the treatment of women – and the statistics are appalling and egregious. In some communities, women are safer in the streets than they are in their own homes. This reality is unacceptable and preventable – and we need to step up our strategies to address it.”

The landmark study offers recommendations to address domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The Family Violence Prevention Fund, Global Health Council and PATH co-sponsored the congressional briefing and urged immediate steps to treat domestic violence as the global health issue it is.

“We urgently need a global, integrated response to violence,” said Mary Ellsberg, Senior Advisor for Gender Violence and Human Rights at PATH, “that includes community organizing, training doctors and nurses to respond appropriately to women who disclose abuse, using media and other means to encourage family members to help women who need it, and engaging men and boys in this work.”

“We have learned from our work here in the U.S. that we will not end violence by building shelters and training police officers and judges alone,” Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler said. “That work is crucial, but violence against women will not stop until communities and countries decide to stop it. So our goal must be to change the social norms that tolerate violence and allow women to be treated as chattel.”


Soler also urged lawmakers to support an international Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), which will be introduced next year. “We unveiled an immensely promising strategy recently when more than 30 groups came together to begin a campaign for an international Violence Against Women Act,” she said. “This legislation will, for the first time, commit our government to end violence against women globally. It will address not only health sector responses, but also the economic conditions that can trap women, by promoting fair property rights and helping women avoid sexual violence on the job. It will focus on changing social norms, and look to men and religious leaders as allies. It will address the horrific levels of rape that too often occur during conflicts and humanitarian crises.”

The I-VAWA campaign is co-chaired by Women’s Edge Coalition and Amnesty International USA. The new legislation it supports will work with existing infrastructures by incorporating anti-violence components into existing programs, and funding new programs that can help end violence against women around the world. I-VAWA will strengthen programs that teach women credit and capacity building, increase access to education and job skills and improve property rights and land tenure for women.

It will also include training and sensitization programs for judges and judicial officials, raising awareness of gender violence in the workplace. One initial focus will be to incorporate domestic violence and sexual assault screening into HIV/AIDS programs.

“The time for action is now,” said Nils Daulaire, President and CEO of the Global Health Council. “Domestic violence and violence against women are more than social issues: they fundamentally undermine the health of women around the globe, as well as their children, families and communities. This is truly a global health issue. The United States needs to expand its leadership on this issue, working in close partnership with other governments and civil society.”

WHO’s Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women is available at www.who.int/gender/violence/who_multicountry_study/summary_report/en/index.html

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