Gender, women and health

Violence against women by intimate partners

Acts of emotional abuse

Qualitative research consistently finds that women frequently consider emotionally abusive acts to be more devastating than physical violence. The specific acts of emotional abuse by a partner in the WHO Study included the following:

  • being insulted or made to feel bad about oneself;
  • being humiliated or belittled in front of others;
  • being intimidated or scared on purpose (for example by a partner yelling and smashing things);
  • being threatened with harm (directly or indirectly in the form of a threat to hurt someone the respondent cared about).

Across all countries, between 20% and 75% of women had experienced one or more of these acts, most within the past 12 months. Those most frequently mentioned were insults, belittling, and intimidation. Threats of harm were less frequent, although almost one in four women in provincial Brazil and provincial Peru reported being threatened. Among women reporting each type of act, two thirds or more had experienced the behaviour more than once.

"Emotional abuse is worse. You can become insane when you are constantly humiliated and told that you are worthless, that you are nothing."
-Woman interviewed in Serbia and Montenegro

Because of the complexity of defining and measuring emotional abuse in a way that is relevant and meaningful across cultures, the results of the WHO Study’s investigation of emotional violence and controlling behaviour should be considered a starting-point, rather than a comprehensive measure of all forms of emotional abuse. Future analysis, however, will explore the connection between emotional abuse and health outcomes; both emotional abuse by itself, and in addition to physical or sexual violence by partners.

"One day he returned home very late. I asked him “You are so late ... where did you go?” He answered, “I went to the red light zone. Do you have any problems with that?” I started shouting at him and he instantly landed a blow on my right eye. I screamed and he grabbed my hair and dragged me from one room to another while constantly kicking and punching me. He did not calm down at that ... He undid his belt and then hit me as much and as long as he wanted. Only those who have been hit with a belt know what it is like."
-University-educated woman married to a doctor in Bangladesh