COVID-19 worsening already alarming rate of violence against women: WHO

'Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families,' WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, adding that the problem 'has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic'.

FILE: WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: AFP

GENEVA - One in three women have already suffered physical violence or sexual abuse, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday, warning that the coronavirus pandemic was deepening the problem.

In a report, the UN health agency found that around 30% of all women and girls over the age of 15 - around 736 million people - have already been victims of such violence throughout their lifetimes, mainly at the hands of intimate partners.

"Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, adding that the problem "has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic".

Dr Claudia Garcia-Moreno, who co-authored the report, acknowledged that experts were still waiting for the full data showing the impact of the pandemic.

But the health crisis has clearly had a negative impact, she said.

"We know that the situation for many women may have gotten worse," she told AFP, pointing in particular to some 641 million women and girls over 15 who have faced violence from an intimate partner.

"Women who were already in an abusive situation were trapped in those situations," she said. "All of a sudden they were more isolated and in constant touch with an abusive partner."

At the same time, the added financial pressures and stress of having children at home, among other challenges, risked sparking fresh abuse.

"We know that some of the factors that contribute to exacerbating domestic violence, in particular, are there," Garcia-Moreno said.

UNACCEPTABLY HIGH

Tuesday's report is based on global data from 2000 to 2018.

It follows a first report on the subject in 2013, but Garcia-Moreno said comparisons were complicated due to a shift in methodology and access to far more data for the second report.

What is clear, she said, is that "the rates are unacceptably high and need urgent action".

Abuse by an intimate partner is by far the most common form of violence against women globally, the report said, impacting a full 26% of all women and girls over 15.

Six percent of women have meanwhile been sexually assaulted by someone other than their husband or partner, the report found.

Significant stigma around this issue meant the true figure was likely much higher, it said.

One alarming finding was that partner violence often begins very early in life, with almost a quarter of all adolescent 15-19-year-old girls who had been in a relationship subjected to physical or sexual violence by their partner.

"This is a concern because clearly adolescence and early adulthood are important moments for both health and development and also for the foundations of healthy relationships," Garcia-Moreno said.

While levels of violence against women are "unacceptably high everywhere," there are clear regional differences, she said.

Poorer countries generally have higher levels than wealthier nations, and the region of Oceania counted the highest rates, with up to 51% of women aged 15-49 having experienced partner violence in their lifetimes, the report showed.

Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa also saw particularly high levels of such violence, while southern Europe had the lowest rates, at 16%.

"This is probably a reflection in some part of women's ability to leave abusive relationships, more access to services, more legal protections," Garcia-Moreno said.

Tedros stressed the need for urgent action to address the problem.

"Unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine," he said.

Instead, he said, governments and communities need to work to "change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships."

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