One in 14 women worldwide sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner

Date: February 14, 2014
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Worldwide, one in 14 women (7.2%) aged 15 years or older report being sexually assaulted by someone other than an intimate partner at least once in their lives, according to new research published in The Lancet looking at the prevalence of non-partner sexual violence* in 56 countries.

Professor Naeemah Abrahams from the Gender & Health Research Unit from the South African Medical Research Council in Cape Town led this research with colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organization.

After searching systematically for studies (1998-2011) containing country representative data on the prevalence of women’s reported experiences of sexual violence by anyone except intimate partners, 77 suitable studies were identified, resulting in 412 estimates of violence from 56 countries.

The estimates suggest that the global picture varies widely. Regions with the highest rates of sexual violence are those in central sub-Saharan Africa (21%; Democratic Republic of Congo), southern sub-Saharan Africa (17.4%; Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe), and Australasia (16.4%; New Zealand and Australia). The North Africa/ Middle East region (4.5%; Turkey) and south Asia region (3.3%; India, Bangladesh) reported the lowest rates.

“We found that sexual violence is a common experience for women worldwide, and in some regions is endemic, reaching more than 15% in four regions. However, regional variations need to be interpreted with caution because of differences in data availability and levels of disclosure”, explains Abrahams.**

The authors point out that these data probably underestimate the true magnitude of the issue because of the stigma and blame attached to sexual violence that leads to under-reporting and a lack of good-quality population-based data. Eight regions had data only from one country and many countries had no data at all.

According to Abrahams, “South Africa contributed data for this global prevalence but it was mainly based on a study conducted in one province and the estimated prevalence for South Africa is 12.2% which is double the global rate”. Professor Salim S. Abdool Karim, President of the South African Medical Research Council said “Sexual violence is a serious public health and human rights problem in South Africa. Acknowledging and understanding the extent of this problem is an essential first step to dealing with the scourge of sexual violence in our society”.

Writing in a linked Comment, Kathryn M Yount from Emory University, Atlanta, USA describes the study as “landmark in its scale and rigour”, saying that, “The major contribution of this study is its comprehensive inclusion of data to derive best estimates for the worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence against women.

An estimated prevalence of 5 ·2-9 ·1% is unacceptably high on public health and human rights grounds and, hopefully, will spur timely and systematic discussions about the use of standard definitions and improved research tools and data-collection methods to improve disclosure of a highly stigmatised violation. The data confirm that non-partner sexual violence is neither rare nor geographically isolated and, thus, that existing laws and systems of accountability remain inadequate. Effective responses will require widespread legal and institutional change.”


Publisher: Medical Research Council
Year of Publication: 2014

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