One in three women in the region reports physical intimate partner violence or sexual violence by any perpetrator during her lifetime.

Washington, D.C., 1 October 2015 (PAHO/WHO) — Violence against women is a serious human rights violation and a public health problem throughout the Americas, with significant health, social and economic impacts on women as well as children, families, communities and national economies.

To address the problem, health officials meeting at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) this week vowed to improve the ability of health systems to prevent and respond to violence against women.

"Around the world and in our hemisphere, violence against women is epidemic in its scope and impact," said Cuauhtemoc Ruiz, acting director of PAHO's Family, Gender and Life Course department. "It is a public health problem, and it needs a strong response by health systems. We need to do more to prepare health providers to care for women affected by violence, and we need to step up research and programming to learn how best to prevent violence against women."

"Worldwide, one in every three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, usually by an intimate partner," said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell, in the opening session of PAHO's 54th Directing Council. "This insidious violence crosses ethnicity, class, religion, socio-economic status, and race. It is one of the top human rights challenges of our time and we, the health sector, must respond."

In the Americas, one in three women has experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner during her lifetime. Up to 38% of women murdered in the region are killed by a partner or ex-partner.

Forms of violence against women range from rape, physical assault and murder to sexual harassment in schools and the workplace, and verbal and emotional abuse. In addition to physical injuries and death, such violence can lead to suicide, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, amongst other consequences.

In some settings, women from minority ethnic groups may be at higher risk of violence than other women. An analysis of data from Bolivia found a twofold higher risk of partner violence against women who spoke a language other than Spanish at home. In Ecuador, women who self-identified as indigenous reported higher levels of partner violence than women who identified as mestizo or white. And in Canada, aboriginal women are nearly three times as likely to experience violence as women in the general population.

Violence against women also has economic costs. These include direct costs on health, social service, criminal justice and family court systems as well as indirect costs on survivors, families, employers, and the broader society due to lost productivity and negative psychosocial consequences among women and their children. A comprehensive analysis from Canada estimated that the annual economic impact of spousal violence—including direct and indirect costs—was C$7.4 billion. A World Bank analysis concluded that intimate partner violence costs Peru 3.7% of their gross domestic product (GDP), largely due to lost labor days.

Violence against women has important negative consequences for children. Evidence suggests that long-term health and social consequences of childhood exposure to intimate partner violence are similar to those of physical and emotional child abuse and neglect. In households affected by intimate partner violence, children are also more likely to experience harsh forms of physical punishment.

But health systems can play an essential role in preventing and responding to violence against women.

"We know that women who experience violence are more likely to seek health services for consequences such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, depression and anxiety, but they don't necessarily tell health providers they have experienced violence," said Alessandra Guedes, PAHO regional advisor on family violence. "The challenge for health services is to identify women who have experienced violence, to provide immediate care, and to help them with support and referrals, including to legal and social services."

Public health research has also begun to identify promising prevention strategies, including challenging norms that perpetuate gender inequality and condone such violence, investing in women's political and economic empowerment, preventing child abuse against both boys and girls and reducing the harmful use of alcohol.

The plan adopted by health authorities proposes to:

  • Improve the availability and use of evidence to inform policy and programs
  • Strengthen political and financial commitments to addressing violence against women within health systems
  • Strengthen the capacity of health systems to provide effective care and support to women who have experienced violence
  • Strengthen the role of health systems in preventing violence against women

The new plan was developed through wide consultations that included approximately 100 colleagues representing PAHO member governments, civil society organizations, women's movements, academic institutions, multi-laterals and UN agencies to draw attention to and catalyze action to address violence against women. It builds on a growing body of evidence developed over the last several decades by PAHO/WHO, other agencies of the UN system, and academic and research organizations.


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