Gender, women and health

Violence against women by intimate partners

Factors that protect women or put them at risk

An important aim of the WHO Study was to investigate personal, family and social factors that might protect a woman from violence, or might put her at greater risk. Taking an “ecological” approach, the interviews covered a variety of factors at different levels and within different contexts of a woman’s life (2, 11, 12):

  • Individual factors included the woman’s level of education, financial autonomy, previous victimization, level of empowerment and social support, and whether there was a history of violence in her family as she was growing up.
  • Partner factors included the male partner’s level of communication with her, use of alcohol and drugs, employment status, whether he had witnessed violence between his parents as a child, and whether he was physically aggressive towards other men.
  • Factors related to the immediate social context included the degree of economic inequality between men and women, levels of female mobility and autonomy, attitudes towards gender roles and violence against women, the extent to which extended family, neighbours, and friends intervene in domestic violence incidents, levels of male-male aggression and crime, and some measure of social capital.

Future analysis will explore whether and how these factors interact to increase or decrease a woman’s risk of partner violence. The current descriptive analysis examines only how the sociodemographic factors age, partnership status and education, affect reported prevalence of abuse.


Younger women, especially those aged 15 to 19 years, were at higher risk of “current” (within the past 12 months) physical or sexual violence, or both, by a partner in all settings except Japan and Ethiopia. For example, in urban Bangladesh, 48% of 15–19-year-old women reported physical or sexual violence, or both, by a partner within the past 12 months, versus 10% of 45–49-year-olds. In urban Peru, the difference was 41% among 15–19-year-olds versus 8% of 45–49-year-olds. This pattern may reflect in part that younger men tend to be more violent than older men, and that violence tends to start early in many relationships. In some settings more younger women may be living together with their partners versus being married which, as described below, is associated with higher levels of violence. Also in some settings, older women have greater status than young women, and may therefore be less vulnerable to violence.

Partnership status

In all but two settings, women who had been separated or divorced reported much more partner violence during their lifetime than currently married women (the exceptions were provincial Bangladesh and Ethiopia, where the proportion of divorced or separated women is relatively low in the general population). There was also more partner violence among women who were cohabiting (living with a man) rather than married. In almost half of the settings, there was more violence in the past 12 months among women who were separated or divorced, implying in some cases that violence may persist even after separation.


The WHO Study found that higher education was associated with less violence in many settings. In some settings (urban Brazil, Namibia, Peru, Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania), the protective effect of education appears to start only when women’s education goes beyond secondary school. Previous research also suggests that education for women has a protective effect, even when controlling for income and age (13, 14). It may be that women with higher education have a greater range of choice in partners and more ability to choose to marry or not, and are able to negotiate greater autonomy and control of resources within the marriage.