1 in 3 women face physical, sexual violence in their lifetime, WHO says

The U.N. health agency and its partners have found in a new study that nearly one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, calling the results a "horrifying picture" that requires action by governments and communities alike.

The report released Tuesday from the World Health Organization, based on what the agency called the largest-ever study of the prevalence of violence against women, also found such violence starts early. It says a quarter of young women who have been in a relationship were found to have experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-20s.

The figures, which track a period from 2010 to 2018, doesn't cover the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies have shown an increase of domestic violence against women as governments in many places ordered lockdowns and other restrictions that led many people to remain indoors at home.

The study, the first of its kind by WHO in eight years, compiles data collected from 158 countries and looks at both violence by intimate partners of women and girls aged over 15, as well as sexual violence by non-partners.

"The results paint a horrifying picture. An estimated 736 million women — almost one in three women globally — have suffered intimate partner violence, sexual violence from a non-partner — or both — at least once in their lives," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

"This is an old problem, but we can change it," he said. "We can all speak up to say the violence against women is never acceptable."

The WHO chief urged governments, individuals and communities to help address the problem, such as through reform of discriminatory laws, strengthening of economic rights of women, sexuality education and challenging norms that "support harmful views of masculinity and condone violence against women."

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, called violence against women "the most widespread and persistent human rights violation that is not prosecuted."

"We are particularly concerned about the fact that domestic violence has been so entrenched because home is the one place that a woman can find shelter and peace, supposedly," she added. "But as we can see, it is not so."

The agency says intimate partner violence is the most prevalent form of violence against women globally by far, affecting about 641 million people. But 6% of women who took part had reported being sexually assaulted by someone other than their partner — and that estimate is believed to understate the real number because of stigma and underreporting of sexual abuse.

The study found such violence disproportionately affects women in low- and lower-middle-income countries, with some countries showing a prevalence of about half of all women.