Violence against women

A mother and child at the safe house in Ethiopia

Violence against women and girls is a global problem. It occurs in every country in the world and across all groups and classes, affecting 1 in 3 women in their lifetime.

What is violence against women and girls?

The United Nations defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."

It includes: domestic violence (this includes violence from an intimate partner and family members), rape and other forms of sexual violence, female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, economic control, coercion and emotional abuse, but it takes many forms.

Violence is a violation of women's fundamental human rights, often with devastating consequences. In countries where there is no law against domestic violence, as is the case in 46 countries, women’s average life expectancy is typically shorter than men's. Worldwide, 38% of all women who have been murdered were murdered by their intimate partners.

Violence also has a negative impact on individual women’s livelihoods: the earnings of women in formal paid work who are exposed to severe partner violence are 60% lower than women who are not.


What causes violence against women?

Violence against women happens because women and men are not equal.

There are many different factors which determine whether an individual will experience violence. However, a recent study found that gender inequality at the national level – in education, access to employment, economic and property rights, freedom to marry and divorce – predicted higher levels of partner violence, as did settings where male authority over women’s behaviour is considered normal and where violence against women was widely seen to be acceptable.

While men may also experience violence because of their gender, it is not systemic in the same way. The size and the severity of the problem places violence against women and girls on an entirely different scale.

Is it possible to prevent violence against women?

There are several international human rights agreements which require states to prevent and respond to violence against women, such as the Beijing Platform for Action. There has been some progress. For example, a recent report showed that 25 years ago only seven countries out of 173 studied had laws against domestic violence, today 127 do. But most of the states which have signed and ratified these treaties have failed to implement these obligations.

Legislation alone is not enough, it must be promoted and enforced. Support services must be available to women escaping violence, including access to shelters. Ultimately the key to ending violence against women and girls is in transforming traditional gender roles and power relations, changing the attitudes and beliefs which allow violence to continue.

Drawing on the experiences and expertise of our partners in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia, our Prevention is possible (PDF) report shows that the most effective interventions to end violence against women and girls:

  • are community-based
  • challenge attitudes, norms and behaviours
  • include men and women
  • empower women and girls
  • promote self-led change
  • make a long-term commitment to communities
  • gain support of traditional and religious leadership
  • increases awareness and understanding of the issue among government officials
  • supports women’s access to comprehensive services.

Increasing women’s agency and mobilising women to come together to know and claim their rights is critical in combating violence. This includes providing women-only safe spaces, supporting women to become financially independent, providing training on rights and supporting women to take leadership positions. In the countries and projects studied all of these contributed to shifts in gender roles at the individual, household and community levels.

It is local and national women's rights organisations that are best placed to lead and deliver this work. A recent study of factors which influence levels of violence against women across 70 countries found that more than the wealth of nations, the presence of left-wing political parties, or the number of female politicians, a strong women's rights movement is what makes the biggest difference.

Although women's rights organisations like our partners hold the key to ending violence against women, around they world they are critically oversubscribed and underfunded.

Find out more about women's rights