Violence and Injury Prevention

Sexual violence: strengthening the health sector response

Sexual violence is a pervasive global problem with significant consequences for the physical and psychological health of victims, yet in many places around the world, available services do not meet the needs of survivors. Health workers who provide care to survivors of sexual assault often lack training in sexual violence and forensic evidence collection. Conversely, people who report a sexual assault to the police may undergo a forensic medical examination without their other health needs being addressed. To help ensure that people who have been sexually abused have access to adequate care, WHO began an initiative in 2001 to strengthen the health sector response to sexual violence. This initiative includes the development of guidelines for providing care to sexual assault survivors and the development of a framework to guide health sector policies related to sexual violence.

Guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence were published by WHO in 2003. The guidelines are designed to enable health workers to provide comprehensive care for the medical, psychological and forensic needs of survivors of sexual assault. The first edition has gone through an extensive peer review process and currently is being pilot tested.

WHO is currently developing a policy framework intended to improve health sector responses to sexual violence by assisting decision-makers to design health policy and service measures that will provide comprehensive, sensitive and quality care to victims of sexual violence. The framework has three major aims:

  • To promote policy measures that will support the provision of comprehensive and ethical services to persons who experienced sexual violence
  • To assist in evaluating current policies and practices relevant to sexual violence, identifying existing gaps and setting goals for future policy strategies
  • To promote the co-ordination of efforts of police departments, health services, prosecutors, social welfare agencies, and non-governmental service providers, such as rape crisis centres.

As knowledge regarding effective service provision for victims of sexual violence is limited, particularly in developing countries, a series of background research projects are being conducted to inform the content of the policy framework. Studies include a review of national legislation on sexual violence, a situation analysis of medico-legal services in selected developing countries, and a review of health service models that address sexual violence.

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Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI)