More than one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence and most at the hands of their intimate partners such as a husband, a friend or a family member, says a report released in June from the World Health Organization. No wonder that the WHO’s head, Margaret Chan, says that violence against women is “a global health problem of epidemic proportions.”
It’s an understatement to say that the report makes for very grim reading. 35 percent of women around the world have endured physical or sexual violence. A “startling” 38 percent of all women murdered were killed by their partners.
42 percent of women who have been abused have been injured with most sustaining multiple injuries, most commonly to the head, neck and face and also internally in the form of muscular, skeletal and genital injuries. Women who have been abused have depression rates that are double those of women who have not and are more likely to acquire HIV, to have problems with alcohol and to commit suicide.
Abuse does not only affect women’s physical, mental and sexual health. Women who have had a history of intimate partner violence are twice as likely to have an induced abortion and 16 times as likely to give birth a low-birthweight child.
What Can Be Done?
As high as these figures are, they could well be far higher. Many women do not report violence because of a “fear of stigma,” says Charlotte Watts, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who contributed to the WHO report.
The WHO calls for more and improved training for health practitioners to identify women who have suffered abuse. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, the WHO’s lead specialist in Gender, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Health and Adolescence, also emphasizes other areas of intervention. Child abuse and maltreatment must be addressed as “children who are abused or who are exposed to their parents abusing each other are more likely to end up in an abusive relationship either as perpetrator or as victim.” Education and access to economic opportunities are crucial to better empower women and give them financial independence.
A third area is what Garcia-Moreno refers to as social norms. In too many places around the world, violence against women is considered acceptable. Even talking about violence against women is thought to be “taboo in many countries.”
Public Assault of Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson By Her Husband
Those “many countries” do not only include developing nations, the report underscores. Rates of violence against women were the highest in southeast Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and in Africa. But 32.7 percent of physical and sexual violence against women occurs in high-income countries.
Earlier this month, Charles Saatchi, a multimillionaire art collector, was given a police caution for an incident involving him and his wife, Nigella Lawson. A few days before, photographs of Saatchi placing his hand around Lawson’s throat as they sat outside a London restaurant had been published and widely circulated on the Internet. Saatchi also placed his other hand around his wife’s throat at one point. Lawson — the self-titled “domestic goddess” celebrity cook — reportedly “appeared upset and left the restaurant in tears.”
Saatchi has dismissed the incident as a “playful tiff” and said that the photographs “are horrific but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place.” Lawson has been silent since the pictures appeared. She has, according to a spokesperson, moved “out of the family home with her children.”
Some have said they were “shocked” that such could happen to a successful, rich woman. But saying that Lawson is “the sort of woman whom such things do not happen to” reveals some of the problems that make addressing domestic violence so difficult, writes Hadley Freeman in the Guardian. Heather Harvey of Eaves, a charity supporting those who have experienced domestic violence, points out that what was really shocking was that Saatchi assaulted Lawson in a public place and that no one intervened.
Lawson has insisted that, despite her wealth and fame, her life was “normal.” Indeed, while she was cooking up scrumptious dishes in a kitchen in a TV studio, “her real children [were] darting in and out of the room, scoffing down ricotta cakes with grilled radicchio baked by their picture-perfect mother,” writes Freeman. What the pictures of Lawson and Saatchi show is that Lawson’s “home life was ‘normal’ albeit probably not in the way she meant” — that she is one of the 35 percent of women abused by intimate partners described in the WHO report.
Domestic violence is a global disease that can happen to any woman anywhere. No matter where a woman lives, going public about abuse comes too often not with sympathy but with stigma, silence and even indifference. It is not just medical personnel who need more training about domestic abuse but all of us so that women do not fear to speak about what they have endured — and so that would-be abusers know that society does not condone their violence.
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