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Take action now to prevent violence against women and children

Charlotte Watts*

This Sunday is International Women’s Day. This year’s call is for governments, groups and individuals to ‘make it happen’ – pressing the world to go beyond rhetoric and do the genuine work that it takes to achieve notable advancements for women’s rights.

International Women’s Day also represents an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements. Around the world, there is much to celebrate. Women’s achievements span the arts, science, business, politics, and the family. Through the hard work and sustained action of women’s movements around the world,

The scourge of violence against women has made it onto international and many national agendas. The number of countries with laws regulating intimate partner violence, and making explicit commitments to address violence has risen – the World Health Organization estimates that now, 87% of countries have specific legislation to address domestic violence, and 73% of countries have laws against rape in marriage[1].

Yet, at the same time, evidence on the levels of violence against women and girls, provides a stark reality check about how far we still have to go. Global estimates suggest that 30% of ever-partnered women-almost one in three-will experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner. While such violence by an intimate partner is by far the most prevalent, other forms of violence, including rape and sexual abuse by other men, forced marriage, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation and other harmful practices, are also affecting enormous numbers of women and girls[2]. Evidence suggests that the levels of violence vary both between and within countries, with a combination of individual, household, and community factors influencing the levels of violence occurring in different settings. Poor and marginalised women and girls may be particularly vulnerable, although research also shows that no country, setting or social class is immune. It is also important to recognise the multiple discriminations that some women and girls face related to the intersection of gender with class, caste, race, (dis)ability, and sexual orientation.

Whilst on International Women’s Day we focus on violence against women and girls, we must note that violence against men and boys is also a serious concern. Indeed, a recent UNICEF report found that approximately three in five children globally (nearly one billion children) between two and fourteen years old are subjected to regular corporal punishment by their caregivers[3]. Over their life-course, women’s and men’s experiences of violence have different trajectories. In childhood, both boys and girls are at risk of physical violence, emotional abuse and neglect. Girls are generally more vulnerable to sexual assault, although the sexual assault of boys in various circumstances is also prevalent. In adolescence and adulthood, the patterns of violence diverge. Whilst some men experience domestic and sexual assault, their greatest risk of violence is from males outside the household. In settings with high gun ownership, in particular, homicide rates among adolescent men may be extremely high. In contrast, in adolescence and adulthood, women’s greatest risk of violence is from their partner or other men known to them. Data from the WHO multi-country study[4], in 10 countries, show that in adolescence in particular, girls are at highest risk of both partner and non-partner violence.

As our understanding of violence grows, we are learning more about the ways in different forms of violence are interconnected, suggesting that some forms of violence represent different manifestations of common underlying risk factors for abuse. For example, gender inequality, and the associated notions of masculinity that value male strength and sexual entitlement, and constructs of femininity that support passivity and subservience to men, can foster an environment in which many forms of male violence are tolerated or overlooked.

Research is also showing that the home is an important setting where multiple forms of violence can occur. For example, many men who are violent towards their partner are also violent towards their children, either intentionally, as a form of discipline, or when a child tries to intervene to protect their mother. Women may also use violence to discipline their children. Even in cases when children do not directly experience violence, witnessing partner violence has been shown to increase their risk of experiencing (for women) or perpetrating (for men) violence later adulthood, as well as engaging in other risk behaviours, such as heavy alcohol use and involvement in gangs. These longer-term impacts are thought to occur both due to the impact of violence exposures on children’s cognitive development, and also due to the process of socialisation that gender inequality and violence are acceptable. However, this later risk is not inevitable – although a multi-country study of male perpetration of violence in Asia and the Pacific found that men who have been victims are more likely to perpetrate intimate partner violence or rape, the majority of male victims did not subsequently perpetrate violence[5].

That 30% of women experience violence from their partner shows the need to invest in prevention. Encouragingly, a recent evidence synthesis in the Lancet[6] shows that partner violence is preventable – with some interventions able to more than halve the levels of violence from a partner that women experience over two years[7]. This evidence suggests that it is important to work with both women and men, and challenge the discriminatory social norms and practices that underpin both gender inequality and violence. The achievement of secondary education, and social and economic empowerment of women, also appears to reduce risk in some settings[8].

Effective prevention does not just mean lecturing people that violence is wrong or harmful, but rather seeks to support women and men, girls and boys, to critically reflect on the implications of existing inequalities between the sexes, and recognise the ways in which violence can be used to exert power or in response to conflict. These interventions often have an aspirational focus, and seek to support men and women as they try to have more equitable, non-violent relationships.

For the past ten years, the Gender, Violence and Health Centre at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have been conducting rigorous research to learn more about how to prevent violence against women and girls in different low and middle income settings. What is emerging from our recent intervention research[9] in Uganda, is that interventions to reduce partner violence, and that support the development of core skills – such as greater empathy, improved communication, and better anger management strategies – not only reduce violence within relationships, but also seem to improve parents relationships with their children, as participants apply the skills learnt to the ways in which they raise their children.

Although the work is exploratory, the findings suggest that interventions to prevent violence against women in the household have the potential to have broader benefits for children – offering a promising way to reduce multiple forms of abuse simultaneously. Working with the Know Violence in Childhood: A Global Learning Initiative, over the next year, we will further explore the potential synergies between violence against women and violence against children prevention, and use the findings to inform the development of a more holistic agenda for the prevention of violence against women and children. In this way, we hope to create conditions that will both reduce women’s exposure to violence and help children live in violence-free households, and ultimately, learn to engage in violence free, gender equitable, adult relationships.

*Professor Charlotte Watts is Head of the Social and Mathematical Epidemiology Group and senior member of the Gender, Violence and Health Centre, in the Department for Global Health and Development at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She also serves as the Co-Chair of Learning Group 1 for Know Violence in Childhood.


1. WHO, United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The Global status report on violence prevention 2014

2. WHO, LSHTM, MRC SA, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of IPV and non-partner sexual violence, 2013

3. UNICEF: Hidden in Plain Sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children (2014)

4. Garcia-Moreno C et. al. Prevalence of intimate partner violence: findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women Study Team, Lancet, 2006; 368(9543):1260-9

5. Fulu E et al. Prevalence and risk factors for male perpetration of intimate partner violence: findings from the UN Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. The Lancet Global Health 2013

6. Ellsberg et al (2014) Prevention of violence against women and girls: what does the evidence say? The Lancet. Published Online: 20 November 2014

7. Kim et al. Understanding the Impact of a Microfinance-Based Intervention on Women’s Empowerment and the Reduction of Intimate Partner Violence in South Africa. Am J Public Health, 2007; 97(10): 1794-1802

8. ibid.

9. Abramsky et al (2014). Findings from the SASA! Study: a cluster randomized controlled trial to assess the impact of a community mobilization intervention to prevent violence against women and reduce HIV risk in Kampala, Uganda. BMC Medicine 12/122



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