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The Public Health Impact of Domestic Violence

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Intimate partner violence is the most common kind of violence experienced by women worldwide, both in developing and in industrialized countries. According to a WHO report, 35% of all women will experience either intimate partner or non-partner violence.

In Russia, more than 14,000 women are killed every year in acts of domestic violence. And in China, according to a national survey, one-third of the country’s 270 million households cope with domestic violence. Domestic violence is also rife in most African countries. According to a United Nations report, domestic violence in Zimbabwe accounts for more than six in ten murder cases in court. In Kenya and Uganda, 42% and 41% respectively of women surveyed reported having been beaten by their husbands.

Domestic violence is widespread in Arab countries. Studies carried out in the Arab world show that 70 percent of violence occurs in big cities, and that in almost 80 percent of cases those responsible are the heads of families, such as fathers or eldest brothers. Both fathers and eldest brothers, in most cases, assert their right to punish their wives and children in any way they see appropriate.

Because of the extent of this phenomenon, a global momentum for more effective action is building, according to the medical magazine, the Lancet. In March of 2013, 103 member states at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York and agreed to end violence against women and girls and to protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Female victims of violence suffer a wide variety of health problems such as organ and bone damage, miscarriage, exacerbation of chronic illness, gynecological problems and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. In addition, they are more susceptible to a variety of mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep and eating disorders, emotional distress and suicide.

The percentage of women worldwide who are battered are battered during their pregnancy is 25% to 45%. The harmful effects of domestic violence against women also extend to their children. Children who grow up in families where there is domestic violence are prone to a wide range of behavioral and emotional disturbances. One of three abused children becomes an adult abuser or victim. Domestic violence by a partner has also been associated with higher rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity.

Violence against women also has a high economic cost for society. According to the United Nations, the cost of domestic abuse in the U.S. exceeds $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion for direct medical and health care services and nearly $1.8 billion for productivity losses. This kind of violence results in almost two million injuries and nearly 1,300 annual deaths. However, at the global level, the response continues to be inadequate. In the U.S., for example, there are more animal shelters than shelters for battered women.

In addition to WHO, domestic violence as a public health issue has been recognized by organizations such as the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States (OAS). “Health systems should be the main door for detection, treatment and support for victims of violence against women,” states Carmen Barroso, Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere. However, the response continues to be inadequate.

Often, abusers prohibit their victims, mostly women, from pursuing career opportunities and other education and personal empowerment activities. Organizations such as Sanctuary for Families in New York City are training gender violence survivors to find living wage jobs in the competitive New York City market. Over the past five years, Sanctuary for Families has trained over 560 survivors of gender violence. 88 percent of them have graduated and secured a living wage job. Efforts like this should be replicated throughout the country.

Ending global violence against women also requires passing and systematically enforcing appropriate legislation for the protection of women. It also demands that we assess the real magnitude of the problem and educate our societies on the value and rights of women and children. Promoting gender equality globally may be the best prevention against future violence.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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