June 20, 2013 at 8:14 AM ET
Around the globe, 30 percent of all women aged 15 and older have suffered intimate partner violence - including physical and sexual attacks, according to the first systematic study of available data on assaults against women, released Thursday.
The rates of abuse vary widely by world regions: in Sub-Saharan Central Africa, for example, two-thirds of women have been victimized, marking the highest portion on any section of the planet; in North America, violence from an intimate partner, such as a husband or boyfriend, has impacted slightly more one in five women, report the authors. For the paper, published online by the journal Science, the authors synthesized 141 previous studies from 81 countries.
"The prevalence is shockingly high," said lead author Karen Devries, a social epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "People in general will be surprised by the figure, since many forms of violence remain hidden from public view. Those who have experienced intimate partner violence often do not disclose to those people close to them."
“These findings send a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions,” added Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, which partnered on the research with the London School of Hygiene and the South African Medical Research Council. “We also see that the world’s health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence.”
According to the report, "a greater focus on primary prevention is urgently needed." It also described the field of preventing violence against women as being "still in its nascence."
In the United States, where domestic violence crimes among some celebrities have made news - including recent cases against boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather, pop star Chris Brown, and actor Mel Gibson -- two leading experts said they were not surprised by the reported prevalence. And in Britain this week, police said they are investigating photos of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson that allegedly show her husband's hands around her neck.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which bills itself as the largest organization of feminist activists in the U.S., said, "I think we know how to prevent it. I think we’ve just begun develop the political will to implement the programs that we know need to be put into place."
Those programs include, O'Neill said, services that allow survivors to become economically self-sufficient so they can live apart from their abusers, and holding intimate-violence criminals accountable.
She called the 1994 Violence Against Women Act "a pretty good role model" that began "shifting the culture and the opportunities for women so they're not dependent on an individual who may turn out to be violent." Among the features of that law, which extends coverage to male victims: tougher federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, and the creation of a federal “rape shield law,” which prevents offenders from using a victim's past sexual conduct against the victim during a rape trial.
But such cultural reform has yet to reach every corner of the globe. According to a recent United Nations report, 125 countries have outlawed domestic violence. By that math, 70 countries have not made domestic violence illegal. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, a court ruled in 2010 that a man is permitted under Islamic law to physically discipline his wife and children as long as he leaves no marks and has tried other methods of punishment.
In fact, the rates of physical and sexual violence against women are likely higher than the new report found because female victims are often reluctant to reveal such crimes, O'Neill said.
"I'm, myself, a survivor of domestic violence and I didn't talk about it publicly for 30 years," O'Neill said.
In addition to physical and sexual attacks by intimate partners, women face still more forms of intimidation from partners that can be equally controlling, said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, based in Denver.
The finding of a 30-percent worldwide victim rate doesn't surprise Smith, she said, adding: "Those numbers are consistent with what domestic-violence advocates know happens in local communities all over the country."
"What is important to notice about this report: there's a whole other layer of violence that happens that isn’t physical - emotional, economic, verbal, stalking, threats with weapons - that would raise those numbers exponentially," Smith said.
"They are still terrifying. They are ways to control another human being," Smith added. "We need to pay attention to the (new) numbers because when we have this amount of people being physically assaulted, it indicates a much broader problem of violence."