UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Marie Dorigny/UNFPA
Villager covers face in the town of Tigray, Ethiopia.

Gender-Based Violence:
A Price Too High

-The Magnitude and Many Forms of Gender-Based

-Violence Against Women and the MDGs

-Mobilizing for 'Zero Tolerance'

-Men Take a Stand

"[A] woman who lives in the shadow of daily violence ..is not truly free." - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, In Larger Freedom

Gender-based violence is perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated of human rights violations. The cost to women, their children, families and communities is a significant obstacle to reducing poverty, achieving gender equality and meeting the other Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Violence is a traumatic experience for any man or woman, but gender-based violence is preponderantly inflicted by men on women and girls. It both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims.

Worldwide, an estimated one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.(1) One in three will have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, usually by a family member or an acquaintance.(2) More often than not, the perpetrators go unpunished. Each year, hundreds of thousands of women and children are trafficked and enslaved, millions more are subjected to harmful practices. Violence kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer. And its toll on women's health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined.(3)

The consequences of gender-based violence are devastating. Survivors often experience life-long emotional distress, mental health problems and poor reproductive health. Abused women are also at higher risk of acquiring HIV.(4) Women who have been physically or sexually assaulted tend to be intensive long-term users of health services.(5) The impact of violence may also extend to future generations: Children who have witnessed abuse, or were victims themselves, often suffer lasting psychological damage.(6)

The cost to countries is high as well: Increased health care expenditures; demands on courts, police and schools; and losses in educational achievement and productivity. In Chile, domestic violence cost women $1.56 billion in lost earnings in 1996, more than 2 per cent of the country's GDP.(7) In India, one survey showed women lost an average of seven working days after an incident of violence.(8) Domestic violence constitutes the single biggest health risk to Australian women of reproductive age, resulting in economic losses of about $6.3 billion a year.(9) In the United States, the figure adds up to some $12.6 billion annually.(10) International financial institutions have also begun to take note. The Inter-American Development Bank, for example, is addressing genderbased violence through its lending portfolios.(11)

The Magnitude and Many Forms of Gender-Based Violence

Gender-based violence may involve intimate partners, family members, acquaintances or strangers. Though it was long regarded a private matter, it is now recognized by the international community as a violation of human rights, rooted in women's subordinate status (see Box 28). The action plans from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) recognized the elimination of gender-based violence as central to gender equality and the empowerment of women. The term comprises domestic violence, sexual and psychological forms of abuse as well as harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation/cutting. It also includes prenatal sex selection and female infanticide- extreme manifestations of the low social value placed on girls (see Box 29). Systematic rape, increasingly used as a tool of terror during armed conflict, has prompted the adoption of major international agreements to protect women and punish perpetrators (see Chapter 8).


In 1993, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women offered the first official definition of gender-based violence:

Article 1: Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Article 2 of the Declaration states that the definition should encompass, but not be limited to, acts of physical, sexual, and psychological violence in the family, community, or perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs. These acts include: spousal battery; sexual abuse, including of female children; dowry-related violence; rape, including marital rape; female genital mutilation/cutting and other traditional practices harmful to women; non-spousal violence; sexual violence related to exploitation; sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in school and elsewhere; trafficking in women; and forced prostitution.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action expanded on this definition, specifying that it includes: violations of the rights of women in situations of armed conflict, including systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy; forced sterilization, forced abortion, coerced or forced use of contraceptives; prenatal sex selection and female infanticide. It further recognized the particular vulnerabilities of women belonging to minorities: the elderly and the displaced; indigenous, refugee and migrant communities; women living in impoverished rural or remote areas, or in detention. See Sources

29    |    MISSING GIRLS

Discrimination against girls may begin in the womb. In some countries, a strong preference for sons has led to the elimination of millions of girls through prenatal sex selection. Baby girls also die through deliberate neglect and starvation. In Asia, at least 60 million girls are "missing". In some countries, sex selection is more common in cities, where technologies such as amniocentesis and ultrasound are readily accessible and open to misuse. In others, it occurs more commonly in rural areas, where the preference for sons is strong. Governments have banned the practice, and passed laws against discrimination and abandonment of girls, but the practice is deeply rooted. In many places, it is reinforced by the perception that daughters are an economic liability, either because of low expected contributions to family income or large dowry requirements. Sex selection has become a lucrative business for doctors and producers of medical equipment.

Sex ratio at birth is slightly skewed in favour of boys due to biological reasons. For every 100 girls born there are normally 103 to 107 boys. However, since boys and men normally have higher mortality rates than girls and women throughout life, in most countries of the world, women outnumber men. A country's sex balance can be a telling indicator of its social well-being. The shortage of women and girls in some Asian countries has potentially alarming social repercussions, including increased demand for trafficking in women, whether for marriage or for sex work, and the worsening of their status overall.

Eliminating the practice requires changes in the way girls and women are valued by society. In India, UNFPA supports the Government in a comprehensive approach that includes building media interest, creating community-based networks to advocate against the practice, sensitizing health providers and involving youth and other key stakeholders. In Haryana State, where the sex ratio imbalance is one of the highest, jagriti mandalis ("forums of awakening") function as women's social action groups that promote the rights of daughters. These groups have convinced families and doctors not to practice sex selection. In China, where the government aims to normalize its sex ratio imbalance by 2010, UNFPA has worked with the government, academia, and media to raise awareness and increase capacity. The National Population and Family Planning Commission is offering a "Girl Care" initiative in poor communities in 13 counties. Incentives such as pension plans or monetary rewards designed to offset school fees are being offered to the parents of girls. In 2004, UNFPA and the Ford Foundation organized an international conference on prenatal sex selection, drawing media and policy attention to strategies for eliminating the practice. See Sources

Domestic violence is by far the most common form of gender-based violence. Based on survey data, between 10 per cent of women in some countries and 69 per cent in others are subjected to domestic violence. (12) In about one fourth of cases, sexual abuse also occurs.(13) Sexual violence may involve physical and psychological intimidation, unwanted sexual advances or acts, date and marital rape and blackmail. It may also play on a woman's financial insecurity, through threats of job dismissal or exploitation, such as the offer of food or shelter in return for sex. Denial of contraceptive protection is also considered a form of sexual violence.(14) Although abused women often live in terror, many are trapped by fear of community disapproval or reprisal. These fears may be justified; studies from developed countries show that a significant number of intimate partner homicides occur when a woman tries to leave an abusive partner, or soon thereafter. In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, between 40 and 70 per cent of female murder victims were killed by their male partners.(15)

"Day in and day out I am verbally and physically abused by my husband and in-laws for not bringing in enough dowry..There is nothing I can do about it."

- Jamna, 19, bride of six months, India

Human trafficking, sometimes called the "largest slave trade in history", is overtaking drug smuggling as one of the world's fastest growing illegal enterprises. (16) The United States Department of State 2005 Trafficking in Persons report estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are trafficked each year for forced labour, the majority for commercial sexual exploitation. Approximately 80 per cent are women and girls, and up to 50 per cent are minors.(17) Some two million children, mostly girls, are believed to be sex slaves in the multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry.(18) Trafficking estimates within countries run even higher.(19) In 2000, the alarming rise in sexual trafficking prompted the UN General Assembly to adopt a protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime to protect women and children.(20) In 2005, the Council of Europe also adopted a convention on trafficking.(21) A growing number of developed and developing countries have adopted anti-trafficking laws and policies.(22)


Lured by a relative's false promises, Maya (not her real name), now 35 years old, left Nepal for a brothel in Kolkata, India when she was a young woman. For 14 years, she was forced to have sex with 10 men a day. When she contracted HIV, she was sent back to Nepal, depressed and suicidal. She spent 35 days receiving counselling at a women's shelter in Nuwakot, Nepal, run by Beyond Trafficking: The Joint Initiative in the Millennium Against Trafficking in Girls and Women (JIT). As her confidence increased, Maya began training other women on trafficking and HIV prevention. JIT, a collaborative effort between the Nepalese government and the UN System Task Force Against Trafficking, works to help women like Maya recover and participate more fully in society, not only as survivors, but also as resourceful community members.

UNDER ASSAULT: ADOLESCENT GIRLS AND YOUNG WOMEN. Younger women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence. Nearly 50 per cent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 years or younger.(23) High numbers of young women report that their first sexual experience was coerced.(24) In the Caribbean, this figure is estimated at 48 per cent of young women.(25) Studies from Jamaica, Mali, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe revealed that between 20 and 30 per cent of adolescent girls had experienced sexual violence.(26) Forced sexual relations are especially likely within the context of child marriage.(27) In Burundi, the UNFPA-supported NGO centres offering support for victims of sexual violence found that 88 per cent of the women seeking care in 2004 were young women. In Thailand, intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for women and girls between the ages of 15 and 24.(28)

Women who have been sexually abused once are more likely to suffer it again: 60 per cent of women whose first sexual experience was forced experienced sexual violence later in their lives.(29) Sexual abuse and incest in childhood can have lifelong effects on sexual behaviour and reproductive health.(30) Abused adolescent girls are more likely to undergo early and repeated pregnancies and abortions, and to contract sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Adolescent girls and young women are also the prime targets of traffickers and of armed groups during conflicts and are also subjected to harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting.

"People from that area would take any girl like me. They don't have many females there. I was sold and had to live with him. It was a frightening experience. I could not escape and I had no money even for a phone call. I always wanted to return home."

- 19-year-old girl from China, sold to an older man by her brother

HIDDEN BY A CULTURE OF SILENCE. Violence against women has long been shrouded in a culture of silence. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, as violence is underreported because of shame, stigma and fear of retribution.(31) It is not uncommon for women to be blamed for their own rape and for bringing dishonour to their families. The World Health Organization found that 20 to 70 per cent of the women interviewed in its multicountry research were talking about their abuse for the first time.(32)

One of the reasons women remain silent is that in many societies violence against women is accepted as a "normal" aspect of gender relations.(33) In some countries, a large proportion of women believe wife beating may be justified for reasons such as refusing to have sex or not preparing food on time (see Figure 5). Studies in Peru and South Africa have found that both girls and boys interviewed believed the victim of a sexual assault was to blame and may even have provoked her own assault.(34)

Figure 5: Women Who Believe Wife Beating is Justified for at Least One Reason*

Click here to enlarge image

Click here to enlarge image

Source: Source: Kishor, S. and K. Johnson, 2004, Profiling Domestic Violence: A Multicountry Study, Calverton, MD: ORC Macro, Measure DHS+:66

Financial dependence, subordinate social status and a lack of legal rights and legal counselling services in many societies limit the ability of women to protect themselves or leave abusive situations. Abused women tend to be isolated and kept from social interaction or income-earning activities that might give them the option to end the abuse. Threats of deprivation can trap them and their children in abusive situations. Withholding the means to family survival or financial security, or damage to property or business, constitutes a form of violence. However, such intimidation is rarely legally recognized, with some exceptions, such as in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras.(35)

Even where laws against gender-based violence do exist, enforcement and legal systems may not be supportive. (36) Sometimes they re-victimize women. Such laws often lack budgetary appropriations, leaving critical gaps between intention and reality. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where most countries have passed laws on domestic violence, an analysis of ministry budget lines reveals insufficient funding to implement them properly.(37)

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