More than one-third of women worldwide suffer physical or sexual violence during their lifetimes, the first systematic study by the U.N. World Health Organization recently reported. Of the 35 percent of women who experienced violence, 30 percent of the violence was perpetrated by their partners. Violence against women is a serious crime, a human rights violation and a health problem that has reached epidemic proportions.
In many countries, the violence against females starts young. The WHO report noted a South African study that found that 42 percent of females 13 to 23 years of age reported experiencing physical dating violence.
In Japan an increasing number of incidents against elderly family members is taking place. The concept of the battered wife has expanded to include the battered parent or grandparent.
The WHO study found high levels of violence against women in every country in the world. Even more tragically, the study likely underestimated real levels of violence because in many places, such as rural Ethiopia or Bangladesh, where seven in 10 women suffer violence, gathering accurate data is difficult. Because the violence also takes place most often between close relations, victims, especially in less developed countries, rarely report their partners. Of all women who were murdered throughout the world, the WHO survey found that 38 percent were killed by their partners.
Violence against women results in everything from broken bones to pregnancy complications to depression. Such violence is not only morally repugnant and criminal, it is also extremely costly for both victims and society at large. One study in the United States put the cost of treatment for violence-related injuries at $4 billion a year, with $1.8 billion in lost productivity. Another estimate put the costs of violence against women in Vietnam as high as 2 percent of gross domestic product. Shocking statistics reveal that more women around the world are injured by domestic violence or rape than from cancer, car accidents, war or malaria.
To reduce the level of violence against women, it is imperative to increase financial support for abuse-related programs. Governments, especially in countries like Japan, with a relatively developed economy, need to prioritize budgets to staunch this epidemic.
Women who receive immediate shelter or longer-term housing or a housing allowance find it easier to leave abusive partners. That support increases the potential for filing police reports and following up with legal action. Telephone hot lines, the front line for help, also require funding for training and personnel.
The police and legal system must also be changed to encourage victims to file criminal reports. Japan introduced its first domestic violence law in 2002, putting the country in line with the other 125 countries that have specific laws against domestic violence. However, nearly 600 million women worldwide live in countries where intimate partner violence is not yet a crime.
Violence against women by their partners will continue in all countries unless effective investigations and prosecution can be instituted. Encouragement to file reports and restraining orders are good first steps. Those initial interventions, though, must be followed up with thorough legal assistance. Many cases take considerable time to work through the courts. At all steps in the legal process, women deserve respect and dignity.
When Japan improved its system for reporting and investigating domestic violence in 2011, the number of cases reported increased dramatically. An additional 46.3 percent surge in cases were reported after the National Police Agency changed its policies that year on domestic violence.
In addition to increased reporting, special domestic violence units with set procedures, specific training and combined experience are best equipped to handle such cases and ensure follow-through from the initial report to the final verdict. Medical care is also needed, usually immediately.
In Japan, 26 percent of women were punched, kicked or shoved, with another 14 percent forced to have sex. Eighteen percent of Japanese women also suffer psychological abuse, so longer-term counseling and mental health treatment are necessary.
In the WHO survey, women who suffered from violence were found to be twice as likely to experience depression or to abuse alcohol. Better training at all levels of the health profession is needed to identify cases of violence and provide appropriate care.
At schools, universities, community centers and hospitals, educational programs and public campaigns to provide facts, information and contact numbers need to be expanded.
Many women who suffer domestic violence endure it because the social stigma is too great to take action, they fear retaliation, they can’t support themselves or they are too isolated to talk to anyone about their situation.
Many women consider the problem as something that must be endured for the sake of their children. Better awareness and accessible information about the causes and possible solutions for physical and sexual violence would help women tremendously.
The violence that women suffer on a daily basis in every country in the world must be understood as a devastating crisis and dealt with accordingly. Eliminating tolerance for domestic violence, increasing support for women and instituting effective solutions can provide hope for the one-third of the world’s women who are victims of violence to one day live lives that are free of fear, danger and suffering.