Sexual violence against girls and women is one of the strongest expressions of patriarchal cultural values, norms and traditions. These learnt behaviours often cause men to believe that they have the right to abuse women’s bodies.
To ascertain the breadth of the problem, UNICEF and partners recently published research indicating that some 35 per cent of all women will experience either intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”
Alarmingly, the abuse is often committed by someone that is known to the child, including parents, spouses or partners, other family members, caretakers, teachers, employers, law enforcement authorities, state and non-state actors and other children.
Only a small proportion of these acts are reported or investigated, and even fewer perpetrators are ever held accountable for their actions. Amongst females aged 18-24, only about 3 per cent who experienced sexual violence received professional help from institutions such as clinics or NGOs.
There is significant evidence that abuse affects a child’s physical and mental health in the short and long-term. Abuse often impairs their ability to learn and socialize, and impacts their transition to adulthood with adverse consequences later in life.
Violence is often shrouded in silence and is a major contributor to mental health disorders. About half of all mental disorders recorded begin before the age of 14.
Around 20 per cent of children and adolescents are estimated to have mental disorders or problems. Similar to sexual violence, stigma about mental disorders and discrimination often prevent people from seeking mental health care services.
Violence is also a leading cause of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Research has documented that women who experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence were twice as likely to have an abortion.
If the abused pregnant female carries to term, they have a 16% greater chance of having a low birth-weight baby – a leading cause of infant mortality and complication.
Sexual violence is often associated with a host of sexual and reproductive health problems, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV and AIDS, miscarriages, sexual dysfunction and gynaecological disorders.
Gender based violence is responsible for psychological distress which often results in acceptance of the problem. This acceptance results in more violence and consequently more psychological distress: an on-going cycle of risk and consequence.
According to WHO, “women experiencing intimate partner violence are almost twice as likely as other women to have alcohol-use problems.”
Psychological distress can trigger women to use alcohol and other substances of abuse to cope with the violence. However, these substances can encourage other poor-health related risk factors such as tobacco use and unprotected sex.
Childhood abuse directly translates into adverse outcomes for adults. Abused women often suffer isolation, inability to work, loss of wages and lack participation in activities. These outcomes will prevent and limit a woman’s ability to care for herself and her family.
Do not blame yourself. Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault. To end sexual violence you first have to name it, know it and then report it.
Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and control. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.