Gender, women and health

Violence against women by intimate partners

Women’s attitudes towards violence

In addition to women’s experience of violent acts, the WHO Study investigated two important aspects of women’s attitudes to partner violence:

  • the circumstances under which women believe that a man is justified in beating his wife (wife-beating is probably the most common expression for physical violence by a male partner); and
  • women’s beliefs about whether and when a woman may refuse to have sex with her husband.

First, women were presented with six different situations and were asked, for each of these, whether she agreed or not that the specific reason justified wife-beating. The reasons most commonly given included not completing housework adequately, refusing to have sex, disobeying her husband, and being unfaithful. As can be seen in Figure 5, there was wide variation in women’s acceptance of different reasons, and indeed with the idea that violence was ever justified. The most marked variation was between the urban, industrialized settings and the rural and traditional ones.

"My husband slaps me, has sex with me against my will and I have to conform. Before being interviewed I didn’t really think about this. I thought this is only natural. This is the way a husband behaves."
-Woman interviewed in Bangladesh

While over three quarters of women in the urban settings of Brazil, Japan, Namibia, and Serbia and Montenegro said that no reason justified violence, at most only a quarter thought so in the provincial settings of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Samoa. In all settings, the reason most widely accepted as a justification for violence was female infidelity, but the range was wide: from 80% in Ethiopia to 6% in Serbia and Montenegro. Disobeying a husband was the next most accepted reason.

In virtually all cases and for all reasons, acceptance of wife-beating was higher among women who had experienced abuse than among those who had not. This may indicate that women learn to “accept” violence in circumstances where they themselves are victims, or that women who see violence as “normal” are more likely to enter or remain in violent relationships. Future analyses will explore whether community levels of violence are higher in settings where violence against women is widely accepted.

"He got this gun, I don’t know from who... And he would tell the girls: “I’m going to kill your mother... The day will break and your mother will be dead right here...” I would sleep in a locked bedroom and with a dog inside the room with me. My dog. So he would not kill me."
-Woman interviewed in Brazil

Respondents were also asked whether they believed a woman has a right to refuse sex with her husband in a number of situations, including if she is sick, if she does not want to have sex, if the husband is drunk, and if the husband is mistreating her (Figure 6). As with physical violence, women appeared to make distinctions between the acceptability of different reasons to refuse sex. Fewer women felt sex could be refused based on a woman’s preference (she doesn’t want it) than if she was ill or the partner was drunk or abusive. In the provincial sites of Bangladesh, Peru, and the United Republic of Tanzania, and in Ethiopia and Samoa, between 10% and 20% of women felt that women did not have the right to refuse to have sex under any of these circumstances.