One in four women experience domestic abuse before 50

Photograph: Jussi Nukari/Rex/Shutterstock

More than one in four women worldwide experience domestic violence before the age of 50, according to the largest review of its kind, prompting calls for urgent action to end the abuse.

Analysis of 366 studies involving more than 2 million women reached an estimate that 27% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a male partner in their lifetime.

One in seven women (13%) – almost 500 million globally, had experienced domestic violence within the last year of the research being conducted. The findings were published in the Lancet. Because the studies, conducted between 2000 and 2018, were based on self-reported experiences, and given the sensitive and stigmatized nature of the issue, the true scale of violence is feared to be even higher, the researchers said.

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have contributed to more cases, they added. “Intimate partner violence affects the lives of millions of women, children, families and societies worldwide,” said the study’s senior author, Claudia García-Moreno, of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Although this study took place before the Covid-19 pandemic, the numbers are alarming and research has shown the pandemic exacerbated issues leading to intimate partner violence such as isolation, depression and anxiety, and alcohol use, as well as reducing access to support services.

“Preventing intimate partner violence from happening in the first place is vital and urgent. Governments, societies and communities need to take heed, invest more, and act with urgency to reduce violence against women, including by addressing it in post-Covid reconstruction efforts.” García-Moreno said progress made over the last 20 years was “grossly insufficient” to meet global targets for eliminating violence against women by 2030.

The study also found high levels of violence against adolescent girls and young women. In the youngest age cohort, 15 to 19, 24% are estimated to have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The prevalence of recent intimate partner violence was highest among ever-partnered adolescent girls and young women aged 15 to 19 and 20 to 24, with 16% or one in six having experienced domestic violence within the last 12 months of the research.

“The high number of young women experiencing intimate partner violence is alarming, as adolescence and early adulthood are important life stages when the foundations for healthy relationships are built,” said the lead author of the study, LynnMarie Sardinha, also of the WHO. “The violence these young women experience has long-lasting impacts on their health and wellbeing.

Intimate partner violence is preventable and more needs to be done to develop and invest in effective community- and school-based interventions that promote gender equality and reduce young women’s risk of being subjected to violence from a partner.” The analysis of data from 161 countries found regional variations, with high-income countries having lower prevalences of both lifetime and past-year violence.

The lifetime prevalence among women aged 15 to 49 was highest in Oceania (49%) and central sub-Saharan Africa (44%). The regions with the lowest estimated lifetime domestic violence against women were central Europe (16%) and central Asia (18%). Prevalence in western Europe was estimated at 20%, suggesting one in five women in the region experience domestic violence before the age of 50.

The authors acknowledge some limitations with the study. They include important gaps in the data for some geographical regions and specific populations – for example, people living with disabilities, minority ethnic or migrant women, trans women, and women in same-sex partnerships.

“These findings confirm that violence against women by male intimate partners remains a global public health challenge,” said García-Moreno, who called for “urgent investment in effective multi-sector interventions and a strengthened public health response in tackling this issue post-Covid”.

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