Gender, women and health

Coping and responding to intimate-partner violence

Which agencies or authorities women turn to

Research in many countries has shown that informal networks such as family, friends, and neighbours usually provide the first point of contact for abused women, rather than more formal services (20). This finding is supported by the results of the WHO Study, which asked respondents about their use of different formal services (health services, legal advice, shelters) or whether they had contacted people in positions of authority (police, women’s nongovernmental organizations, local leaders, religious leaders). Figure 14 shows that even when women told someone about the physical abuse, in each site a much smaller proportion of women sought help. Indeed, the majority of physically abused women (between 55% and 95%) reported that they had never gone to any of these agencies.

The finding that more women had talked informally to someone than had sought formal help may in part reflect that an individual’s response to violence may take time to develop. In some cases, it may take years before a woman starts to challenge or question the violence in her life, and even longer before she seeks help (21).

The lowest levels of contact with different agencies and authorities to seek help were found in Bangladesh, Japan, Samoa, and provincial Thailand. Only in Namibia and Peru had more than 20% of physically abused women contacted the police, and only in Namibia and urban United Republic of Tanzania had more than 20% sought help from health care services. In eight of the settings, less than 10% of physically abused women reported seeking help for abuse from health services. In Ethiopia and provincial United Republic of Tanzania, 15% and 31% of physically abused women, respectively, sought support from local leaders, while in urban Brazil, 15% of women sought help from religious leaders.

Why women seek – or do not seek – help

In all settings, women who had experienced severe physical violence were more likely to seek support from an agency or authority than those who had experienced moderate violence (Figure 15). The most frequently given reasons for seeking help were related to the severity of the violence (e.g. she could not endure more or she was badly injured), its impact on her children, or encouragement from friends and family to seek help.

The respondents’ most common reason for not seeking help was either that they considered the violence normal or not serious (from 29% of women who reported not seeking help in provincial Peru to 86% in Samoa), or that they feared consequences such as further violence, losing their children, or bringing shame to their family. Some felt they would not be believed, or that it would not help.

This low use of formal services also reflects in part the limited availability of services in many places. However, even in countries relatively well supplied with resources for abused women, barriers such as fear, stigma, and the threat of losing their children stop many women from seeking help (22).