Global study of survivors of gender-based violence confirms our worst fears

By — December 12, 2013

In the aftermath of the widely publicized sexual assaults in India, local and international experts have focused on the environment in which impunity, victim-blaming, and under-reporting have allowed these crimes to persist. The attention has forced Indians to examine how police, medical examiners, and members of the public treat sexual assault survivors.

But these issues are not only Indian problems—they are global problems.

A clinic in Liberia offers free consultations on rape counseling. (Christopher Herwig)

In a recent study of 24 developing countries that I conducted with my colleagues, Jennifer Bleck of the University of South Florida and Amber Peterman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we found that a combined total of only 7 percent of survivors of gender-based violence (physical and sexual, perpetrated by anyone, including intimate partners) formally reported the violence to police, medical, or social services—combined.

But in India, less than 1 percent of survivors reported gender-based violence to formal sources. This was the lowest percentage among all of the countries we studied. The highest was Colombia, with 26 percent.

This means that even in Colombia, 3 in 4 women who experienced gender-based violence did not formally report the attack. And while there was a wide variation between the countries in each region, those areas where women were more likely to report gender-based violence to formal sources included Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern Europe/Central Asia, compared to India/East Asia and Africa.

We also looked at whether women told their family, friends, and neighbors (we called this “informal reporting”) about the attack, and found that rates of informal reporting ranged from 15 percent in Honduras to 60 percent in Ukraine. In fact, in 20 of the 24 countries studied, the majority of women told no one at all. This means not only that most survivors are not receiving formal services, but that they are not even receiving informal support from friends and family members to deal with the violence they have experienced.

Measuring the most pervasive form of violence
Before we can understand the many reasons for which women have not reported gender-based violence, it’s important to point out that even though rapes perpetrated by strangers get the most media attention, intimate partner violence (violence perpetrated by partners, including spouses) is the most pervasive type of gender-based violence worldwide.

A study by Rachel Jewkes and colleagues conducted in six Asian countries (Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Papua New Guinea) found that the percentage of men who had perpetrated non-partner rape ranged from 4.3 percent in Bangladesh to 40.7 percent in Papua New Guinea. But when intimate partners were included as victims, the percentage of men who had raped increased, ranging from 12.9 percent in Bangladesh to 59.1 percent in Papua New Guinea.

In another study, published in June in The Lancet, Karen Devries and her colleagues estimated that 1 in 3 ever-partnered women around the world had experienced physical or sexualized violence at the hands of a partner.

And yet many countries do not consider spousal rape a crime. In the United States, it was not until 1993 that spousal rape was recognized as a crime in every state. And even then, in many U.S. states, spouses receive lighter sentences for rape than do non-spouse perpetrators.

Why women don’t report abuse
Several factors contribute to the reluctance of women to report gender-based violence. Victims of intimate partner violence, as well as non-partner sexual assault, are often stigmatized. Still others might choose not to report because of the widespread impunity for perpetrators. In many countries, law enforcement and legal infrastructure are underdeveloped or under-resourced to investigate and prosecute these types of crimes. Forensic science may be minimal or nonexistent in many countries, and even in the U.S., there are huge backlogs in the processing and testing of sexual assault evidence kits.

Some women may also not know where to go to report the attack or where to seek services, either because they lack information about available services or because none exist where they live. Even in places where services do exist, women can face stereotypical attitudes and victim-blaming in their interactions with police and courts. They are often not believed, as prior misconceptions can lead police to think that a large number of sexual assaults reported are false reports.

Evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom, however, puts the number of false sexual assault reports between 2 and 8 percent of all reports.

Stereotypes also exist about what a sexual assault looks like. The “classic rape myth” goes something like this: A woman is attacked at gunpoint. She is physically forced to have sex against her will by an unknown assailant. She is left with physical bruises, which are evidence of the attack.

But this myth can perpetuate victim-blaming among law enforcement, particularly when the sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows. Yet, in reality, most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.

Victim-blaming, another phenomena that inhibits women from reporting, often takes the form of shaming a woman for what she was wearing or where she was when the attack occurred. In fact, in Italy, Australia, and South Korea, jurors and judges have suggested that women wearing tight jeans could not be raped because the jeans could not be forcibly removed without assistance from the victim. This means that even if a woman overcomes the barriers to reporting, once she does come forward, the very people she must report to may view her story with incredulity for no other reason than the type of crime she is reporting.

Situations involving intimate partner violence are often even more complex. Women may be financially dependent on their partner, fear getting their partner in trouble with the law, or fear losing their children if they ultimately split from their partner. They may also fear retaliation. Sadly, another reason that women around the world say they do not report intimate partner violence is because they believe it is a normal part of life or something that women must bear.

A recent study by Michelle Hindin at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health of women aged 20 to 49 in 25 African countries found a high proportion of women who believed wife-beating was justified in at least one of five hypothetical circumstances: goes out without telling her partner, neglects the children, argues with partner, refuses sex with partner, or burns the food. The percent of women who believed these things ranged from 18 in Swaziland to 87 in Guinea.

But acceptance of intimate partner violence is by no means limited to Africa. In my own study with Bleck and Peterman, women from not only Cameroon and Mali, but also Bolivia and Cambodia, indicated that they did not report the violence because they thought it was a normal part of life, they thought it was something women must bear, or they thought they deserved it.  

Small steps forward
Not all of the news is bad. Innovative responses to gender-based violence include one-stop centers, where victims receive health, welfare, counseling, and legal services in one location. A study published this year by Rachael Pierotti suggests that women around the world are becoming less likely to accept justifications for intimate partner violence, including the circumstances referenced above. Pierotti argues that global cultural diffusion has played an important role in this change.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where infrastructure and personnel are lacking to try perpetrators accused of sexual assaults, international organizations have provided funds and technical assistance to help local institutions set up mobile courts. Countries like Zambia and Kenya are also beginning to train sexual assault forensic examiners.

Specialized women’s police stations or units have also been set up in countries around the world, including Ghana, Kosovo, India, Philippines, and countries in Latin America, to address intra-family violence and sexual violence.

These promising developments will provide needed services for victims of gender-based violence and encourage them, more importantly, to feel safe enough to report the violence. Still, primary prevention of gender-based violence should be prioritized.

Much more work is needed.