Around the world, as many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way - most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member; one woman in four has been abused during pregnancy.
"Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms... In all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture."
—Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, paragraph 112
Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.
Violence against women has been called "the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world." Accordingly, the Vienna Human Rights Conference and the Fourth World Conference on Women gave priority to this issue, which jeopardizes women's lives, bodies, psychological integrity and freedom. Violence may have profound effects – direct and indirect – on a woman's reproductive health, including:
Gender-based violence also serves – by intention or effect – to perpetuate male power and control. It is sustained by a culture of silence and denial of the seriousness of the health consequences of abuse. In addition to the harm they exact on the individual level, these consequences also exact a social toll and place a heavy and unnecessary burden on health services.
UNFPA recognizes that violence against women is inextricably linked to gender-based inequalities. When women and girls are expected to be generally subservient, their behaviour in relation to their health, including reproductive health, is negatively affected at all stages of the life cycle.
UNFPA puts every effort into breaking the silence and ensuring that the voices of women are heard. At the same time, the Fund works to change the paradigm of masculinity that allows for the resolution of conflict through violence. One strategy is to engage men - policy makers, parents and young boys — in discourse about the dynamics and consequences of violence.
Most domestic violence involves male anger directed against their women partners. This gender difference appears to be rooted in the way boys and men are socialized -- biological factors do not seem to account for the dramatic differences in behaviour in this regard between men and women.
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. Some husbands become more violent during the wife's pregnancy, even kicking or hitting their wives in the belly. These women run twice the risk of miscarriage and four times the risk of having a low birth-weight baby.
Cross-cultural studies of wife abuse have found that nearly a fifth of peasant and small-scale societies are essentially free of family violence. The existence of such cultures proves that male violence against women is not the inevitable result of male biology or sexuality, but more a matter of how society views masculinity.
Studies of very young boys and girls show only that, although boys may have a lower tolerance for frustration, and a tendency towards rough-and-tumble play, these tendencies are dwarfed by the importance of male socialization and peer pressure into gender roles.
The prevalence of domestic violence in a given society, therefore, is the result of tacit acceptance by that society. The way men view themselves as men, and the way they view women, will determine whether they use violence or coercion against women.
UNFPA recognizes that ending gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity, and that process must actively engage men, whether they be policy makers, parents, spouses or young boys.
The majority of sexual assault victims are young. Women in positions of abject dependence on male authorities are also particularly subject to unwanted sexual coercion. Rape in time of war is still common. It has been extensively documented in recent civil conflicts, and has been used systematically as an instrument of torture or ethnic domination.
Now, with precedents set at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Tanzania, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, at The Hague, for mass rape, other acts such as sexual assault, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, forced abortion, and forced pregnancy may qualify as crimes of torture, crimes against humanity, and even some as crimes of genocide.
Because gender-based violence is sustained by silence, women's voices must be heard. UNFPA puts every effort into enabling women to speak out against gender-based violence, and to get help when they are victims of it. The Fund is also committed to keeping gender-based violence in the spotlight as a major health and human rights concern.
UNFPA advocates for legislative reform and enforcement of laws for the promotion and the protection of women's rights to reproductive health choices and informed consent, including promotion of women's awareness of laws , regulations and policies that affect their rights and responsibilities in family life. The Fund promotes zero tolerance of all forms of violence against women and works for the eradication of traditional practices that are harmful to women's reproductive and sexual health, such as rituals associated with puberty.
As part of its work to counter gender-based violence, UNFPA has supported training of medical professionals, to make them more sensitive towards women who may have experienced violence and to meet their health needs. Pilot interventions have been tested in 10 countries-Cape Verde, Ecuador, Guatemala, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mozambique, Nepal, Romania, Russia and Sri Lanka.
Following consultations with health providers and clients, all women were screened for abuse in some pilot projects. Possible victims have been offered legal, medical and psychological support, and medical referrals when necessary. Attention has been paid to involving communities, and to creating support networks for gender-based violence victims that include both police and health-care providers, along with counselling services.
UNFPA has also held workshops for health providers on recognizing the effects of gender-based violence on women's health, and on how to detect and prevent abuse and assist victims. These have stressed the need for confidentiality and monitoring.
Based on this experience, UNFPA has produced a manual, A Practical Approach to Gender-based Violence, which has been translated into seven languages.
Additional strategies the Fund employs to address gender-based violence include: