A third of women worldwide are subject to physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, stated a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, marking the start of '16 Days of Activism' on November 25. According to the report, the Southeast Asian region accounts for 33% of the cases of violence against women worldwide. The WHO's South-East Asian Regional Office (SEARO) stated that the region has the second highest cases of gender-based violence in the world.
The report's author, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, who is the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, said that most cases of violence against women are committed by their intimate partners. "Women are at greatest risks from people they live with," the report read, adding, "Evidence shows that intimate partner violence and sexual violence result from factors occurring at the individual, family, community and wider society levels that interact with each other to increase (risk factors) or reduce risk (protective factors) of such violence.
Health Impacts of Gender-based Violence
Poonam Khetrapal Singh noted that violence against women has long-term and sometimes irreversible repercussions on physical and mental health. She stated that the impact of violence against women encompasses injuries, and serious physical, sexual and reproductive health problems like sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unplanned pregnancies. Such violence can also cause mental health problems, she noted.
"The very high prevalence of violence against women and its significant health impacts place it among today’s priority public health issues. In addition, it is a grievous violation of women’s and girls’ human rights," Singh wrote in the report.
Why Is Gender-Based Violence Prevalent?
Singh said that gender-based violence is a result of deep-rooted gender norms which deem violence against women acceptable. "Key risk factors linked to unequal gender norms include, for example, harmful masculine behaviours, including having multiple partners or attitudes that condone violence, or community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women," the report stated.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a 2021 report, “Unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships,"
Gender-Based Violence As A Health Crisis
Singh wrote that tackling gender-based violence requires a multisectoral joint effort to build a safer environment for women. One of the most important sectors that could contribute to this is the health sector, she said. "This is because, first, women and girls experiencing violence are more likely to use health services. Also, health-care providers are often women’s first point of professional contact," she stated.
Stating the ways in which the health sector can mitigate violence against women, Singh wrote three crucial priorities. "First, health policymakers and managers must strengthen the capacity of the health system and providers and ensure the continuity, adequate resourcing and appropriate delivery of services for survivors as part of essential health services," the report stated. She added that shelters, helplines, and counselling centres are the services that the healthcare sector must identify and spread awareness of.
Second, the report stated, that the health sector has a role to play, with other sectors and stakeholders, in preventing violence against women and girls. "Prevention is a continuum," Singh wrote, adding "Most strategies to prevent VAWG (violence against women and girls) from occurring in the first place are implemented outside the health sector – in communities, in schools, through mass media." Singh also added that for violence to stop from recurring, healthcare workers must be trained to identify signs of violence even when the women are not disclosing it themselves.
The third priority which Singh proposed is that the practice of collecting data should be done in ethical and safe ways, consistent with "survivor-centred principles." She added, "The health sector has a role to play in advocating for, developing and implementing evidence-informed policies and strategies for gender-based violence prevention and response."