Gender, women and health

Violence against women by intimate partners

Physical and sexual violence

Wide variations in prevalence

The wide variations between settings can be seen in Figure 2, which shows the percentage of ever-partnered women in each setting who had ever (i.e. over their lifetime) experienced physical or sexual violence by a male partner. The proportion of women who had ever suffered physical violence by a male partner ranged from 13% in Japan to 61% in provincial Peru. Japan also had the lowest level of sexual violence at 6%, with the highest figure of 59% being reported in Ethiopia.

While sexual violence was considerably less frequent than physical violence in most settings, it was more frequent in provincial Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and urban Thailand. In countries where large cities and provincial settings were both studied, the overall levels of partner violence were consistently higher in the provincial settings, which had more rural populations, than in the urban sites.

Acts, severity, and frequency of physical violence

The most common act of violence experienced by women was being slapped by their partner, from 9% in Japan to 52% in provincial Peru. This was followed by being struck with a fist, for which these two settings again represented the extremes (2% and 42%, respectively). In most places, between 11% and 21% of women reported being hit by a partner with his fist.

The severity of a physically violent act was ranked according to its likelihood of causing physical injuries. Being slapped, pushed or shoved were defined as moderate physical violence. Being hit with a fist, kicked, dragged, threatened with a weapon, or having a weapon used against her were defined as severe physical violence.1 According to this definition, the percentage of ever-partnered women experiencing severe physical violence ranged from 4% of women in Japan to 49% in provincial Peru, with most countries falling between 13% and 26%. As Figure 3 also shows, if women have ever experienced partner violence, it is highly likely that at some time an act of severe violence will occur. In only three countries – Bangladesh, Japan, and Serbia and Montenegro – had a greater proportion of women experienced only moderate violence than had experienced severe violence.

In general, more women reported severe physical violence having occurred over a year ago than in the past 12 months. The exceptions were urban Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Namibia, and Samoa where more women reported severe violence in the past 12 months. It is possible that this reflects the lack of support options in these settings, limiting abused women’s ability to escape their relationship, even when they are subjected to severe physical violence.

Far from being an isolated event, most acts of physical violence by an intimate partner reflect a pattern of continuing abuse. The vast majority of women who had ever been physically abused by partners experienced acts of violence more than once, and sometimes frequently. With the exception of the most severe types of physical violence – choking, burning, and the threatened or actual use of a weapon – in each site, over half of women who had experienced a violent act in the past 12 months had experienced that act more than once.

Sexual violence

Overall, the percentage of women who reported sexual abuse by a partner ranged from 6% in Japan and Serbia and Montenegro to 59% in Ethiopia, with the majority of settings falling between 10% and 50%. The proportion of women physically forced into intercourse ranged from 4% in Serbia and Montenegro to 46% in provincial Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Nearly one third of Ethiopian women reported being physically forced by a partner to have sex against their will within the past 12 months. This high rate of forced sex is particularly alarming in the light of the AIDS epidemic and the difficulty that many women have in protecting themselves from HIV infection.

In most settings, about half of sexual violence was a result of physical force rather than fear. In Ethiopia and Thailand, however, a larger proportion of women reported having sex because they were afraid of something their partner might do. In all settings, some women reported being forced by partners into sexual behaviours that they found degrading or humiliating. Less than 2% of women in Ethiopia, Japan, Serbia and Montenegro, and urban United Republic of Tanzania reported this, compared to 11% of women in provincial Peru.

Overlap between physical and sexual violence

The WHO Study provides one of the first cross-cultural examinations of patterns of partner violence. As illustrated in Figure 4, the most common pattern is that women experience physical violence only, or both physical and sexual violence. In most sites between 30% and 56% of women who had experienced any violence by an intimate partner reported both physical and sexual violence. Only in the urban settings in Brazil and Thailand, and in Japan and Serbia and Montenegro was the overlap between physical and sexual violence less than 30%.

This pattern does not hold true in all settings, however. In both urban and provincial Thailand, and in provincial Bangladesh and Ethiopia, a substantial proportion of women experienced sexual violence only.

1Ranking such acts by severity is controversial. Clearly, under certain circumstances a shove can cause severe injury, even though it is categorized as "moderate" violence. For the most part, however, this ranking conforms with other measures of severity, such as injury.


"The beating was getting more and more severe... In the beginning it was confined to the house. Gradually, he stopped caring. He slapped me in front of others and continued to threaten me... Every time he beat me it was as if he was trying to test my endurance, to see how much I could take."

27-year-old university graduate from Thailand