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Gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It knows no social, economic or national boundaries. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.

Gender-based violence undermines the health, dignity, security and autonomy of women and girls, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. Victims of violence can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and other severe and long-term physical injuries or even death.

WHO's data indicates that women who have been physically or sexually abused are 16% more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby, and they are twice as likely to have an abortion. In some regions, they are 50% more likely to acquire HIV, according to UNAIDS.

UNFPA is one of the UN's lead agencies working to further gender equality and women’s empowerment, and to address the physical and emotional consequences of gender-based violence. UNFPA’s programmes offer psychosocial assistance, medical treatment and rape kits to survivors, and promote the right of all women and girls to live free from violence and abuse.

Scale of the problem

Violence starts early in the lives of women
Lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence among ever-partnered women (WHO, 2013)

AGE GROUP (YEARS)

PREVALENCE (%)

15-19

29.4

20-24

31.6

25-29

32.3

30-34

31.1

35-39

36.6

40-44

37.8

45-49

29.2

50-54

25.5

55-59

15.1

60-64

19.6

65-69

22.2

The issue of gender-based violence reaches every corner of the world. The numbers of women and girls affected by this problem are staggering. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data from 2013, globally 35% of women have been subjected to intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. This means that one in three women is beaten, sexually assaulted or abused in some other way at least once throughout her life – and most often by someone she knows. In the Arab States Region, the rate is even slightly higher, at 37% of women, according to WHO data. One in five women globally is sexually abused as a child, according to a 2014 report.

The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to further worsen different forms of gender-based violence and harmful practices, such as domestic violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage, as emergencies such as pandemics exacerbate existing inequalities between women and men. UNFPA projects that six months of lockdowns could result in an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence, an estimated 2 million more cases of FGM over the next decade than would otherwise have occurred an estimated 13 million more child marriages over 10 years.

Gender-based violence is not only a violation of individual women’s and girls’ rights. The impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, and the fear generated by their actions, has an effect on all women and girls. It also takes a toll on society as a whole, stunting the contributions women and girls can make to international development, peace and progress.

Support for survivors of violence

Despite the extensive work done by women’s organizations, governments and other partners, many women and girls who are subjected to violence still lack access to essential services that support their safety, health and access to justice. To respond to these needs, UNFPA, in collaboration with UN Women and other UN partners, developed the Essential Services Package for Women and Girls Subject to Violence. This guidance tool aims to improve survivors’ access to these services and to ensure the quality of these services, with a particular focus on health, justice (including policing and legal aid), social services (such as psycho-social counselling, helplines and safe houses), and coordination and governance.

UNFPA also plays a key role in addressing gender-based violence through its programmes on sexual and reproductive health. Health services are among the first places where survivors of abuse seek assistance. As the lead UN agency working on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, UNFPA has critical opportunities to reach affected women and girls. Additionally, most women – even in remote areas – are likely to seek contraceptive information or maternal health services at least once in their lifetimes, making health care a critical entry point for violence-related information and assistance.  

UNFPA-supported health programmes provide information about women’s and girls’ rights, including their right to live free of abuse. These programmes also provide essential medical supplies, such as rape kits, to survivors and refer them to psychosocial and legal counselling.

UNFPA also supports survivors of gender-based violence in humanitarian crises, where violence against women often escalatesFor example, in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya  UNFPA’s humanitarian responses include addressing the needs of those who have experienced gender-based violence.

Ending violence against women

UNFPA’s efforts to address violence focus largely on women and girls because evidence indicates they are at greater risk and are generally less able to avoid or escape abuse. However, boys and men may also face sexual assault and other forms of violence. Through policy advocacy, awareness-raising and youth initiatives, UNFPA engages men and boys, not only addressing the rights of women and girls but all human rights.

UNFPA also supports broader efforts to address the problem. For example, the Fund collects data to accurately document incidents of violence, and helps to develop, enforce and reform national laws and policies on gender-based violence. In Mauritania, for example, UNFPA supported a programme in which midwives worked with imams to call for an end to rape. This led to the development of the first batch of national statistics on the issue and the establishment of the first centre for survivors.

UNFPA’s efforts to address violence focus largely on women and girls because evidence indicates they are at a disproportionately high risk and are generally less able to avoid or escape abuse than men and boys. However, men and boys may also face sexual assault and other forms of violence. Through policy advocacy, awareness-raising and youth initiatives, UNFPA engages men and boys to address their human rights as well as to become allies for the realization of women’s and girls’ human rights, as everyone benefits from a more equal society.

UNFPA also supports broader efforts to address the problem of gender-based violence. For example, the Fund collects data to accurately document incidents of violence, and helps to develop, enforce and reform national laws and policies on gender-based violence.

UNFPA and partner UN agencies are also leading the effort to end violence against women and girls at the global level. UNFPA is a key partner in the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, a worldwide effort led by the UN Secretary-General. UNFPA further co-chairs the Issue-Based Coalition on Gender Justice and Equality in the Arab states region and often leads or co-leads in the coordination of responses to gender-based violence, especially in humanitarian contexts. In addition, UNFPA is co-leading, with UNICEF, the Joint Programme to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, which is working with communities to encourage the abandonment of FGM, a harmful practice that injures women and girls. Since 2016, UNFPA has further co-led, again with UNICEF, the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which promotes the rights of adolescent girls to avert marriage and pregnancy in some of the countries most affected by child marriage.

Last updated May 2020