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One in fourteen women has experienced non-partner sexual violence globally

Monday, 17 February, 2014

One in fourteen women around the world has experienced non-partner sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, according to new research published in The Lancet this week. The study is considered the most comprehensive to look at global prevalence of sexual violence outside of intimate partners, concluding that non-partner coerced sex is a worldwide problem that has human rights and public health implications.

The researchers compiled studies from 56 different countries around the world that included women’s experiences of sexual violence not from an intimate partner – these include strangers, acquaintances, friends, peers, teachers, neighbours and other family members. Worldwide, 7.2 percent of woman aged 15 or over have reported being sexually assaulted by a non-partner at some point in their life. Regionally, there were significant differences in prevalence. Central Africa had a reported 21 percent prevalence, while South Asia, a reported 3.3 percent prevalence. Lead author, Professor Naeemah Abrahams, stated: ““We found that sexual violence is a common experience for women worldwide, and in some regions is endemic, reaching more than 15 percent in four regions. However, regional variations need to be interpreted with caution because of differences in data availability and levels of disclosure”.

The authors note that their findings most likely do not reflect the true scope of the issue, as a culture of blame and stigma around sexual violence mean that a lot of experiences go unreported. Many women feel unable to speak up, because of a fear of being blamed, or a perceived lack of support from family and services.

Sexual violence is a clear violation of a woman’s human rights, but it also impacts upon their ability to seek help, especially with regard to health. Like intimate partner violence, there are both short and long-term mental health issues from sexual assault, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. A lack of help-seeking behaviour also means that woman are unlikely to know about the immediate healthcare they may need – such as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV, and contraception for pregnancy.

The study highlights the need for more comprehensive data and subsequent interventions to curb the issue. In a comment linked to the article, Kathryn M. Yount commented: “An estimated prevalence of 5.2–9.1 percent is unacceptably high on public health and human rights grounds… The data confirm that non-partner sexual violence is neither rare nor geographically isolated and, thus, that existing laws and systems of accountability remain inadequate. Effective responses will require widespread legal and institutional change.”