Gender, women and health

WHO Multi-country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence against Women


Until recently, most governments and policy-makers viewed violence against women as a relatively minor social problem, particularly “domestic” violence by a husband or other intimate partner.1 Since the 1990s, however, the efforts of women’s organizations, experts and committed governments have resulted in a profound transformation in public awareness about this problem. Such violence is now widely recognized as a serious human rights and public health problem that concerns all sectors of society (1).

International research has signalled that violence against women is a much more serious and widespread problem than previously suspected. A review of studies from 35 countries carried out prior to 1999 indicated that between 10% and 52% of women reported being physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, and between 10% and 30% reported they had experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner. Between 10% and 27% of women and girls reported having been sexually abused, either as children or adults (2, 3). Data from developing countries was, however, generally lacking.

Furthermore, as the volume of evidence grew, it became clear that levels of violence varied substantially between settings, both among and within countries. This raised many questions, not only regarding the factors underlying these differences but also about the methods used to investigate violence in different countries. The many differences in the way violence was defined and measured in different studies made it difficult to make meaningful comparisons between studies or make reliable estimates in different settings (3). As well as research on the prevalence of violence, increasing attention was paid to its health consequences, with most of the evidence for this coming from studies in North America (4–6).

In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women identified violence against women as one of the critical areas of concern needing action. The relevant chapter of its Platform for Action (7) states that:

“The absence of adequate sex-disaggregated data on statistics and the incidence of violence make the elaboration of programmes and monitoring of changes difficult.” (paragraph 120).

Moreover, it recommends, among other things, the promotion of “research and data collection on the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, especially domestic violence, and research into the causes, the nature and the consequences of violence against women....” (paragraph 129a).

WHO thereafter convened an expert consultation of violence against women in 1996, bringing together researchers, health care providers and women’s health advocates from several countries. The participants recommended that WHO support international research to explore the dimensions, health consequences and risk factors of violence against women. In 1997, WHO initiated the Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women (hereafter referred to as the WHO Study).

1The term "domestic violence" is now being replaced by intimate-partner violence".