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Criminal Justice, Gender, Human Rights

World Health Organization report on sexual violence worldwide

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Violent sexual crimes against women continue to represent a devastating social problem that, because of the social stigma and deep cultural biases, often remain under-reported. Globally, one in four women will likely experience sexual violence by an intimate partner and one in three girls report their first sexual experience being forced, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO has conducted a survey of available data and studies globally to assess the extent of this issue and issued a chapter-length report, called “Sexual Violence,” as part of the WHO’s larger 2002 “World Report on Violence and Health.” That subsection of the report uses data from various sources to build a picture of the pervasive nature of the problem. The WHO emphasizes that the statistical data gathered from official sources such as law enforcement does not fully account for the true scope of the phenomenon.

The report’s findings include:

  • Survey data taken during single calendar years in the 1990s showed that women reported being sexually assaulted at high levels in certain cities globally. During a 12-month period, 8% of women in Rio de Janiero, Brazil reported assaults; 4.5% in Kampala, Uganda; 5.8% in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • In a mid-1990’s survey, 7.7% of women in the United States reported being forced to have sex by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.
  • Likewise, lifetime rates reported in other places were: 23% in north London, U.K.; 29.9% in Bangkok; 15.3% in Toronto, Canada. More than 40% of women in parts of Mexico and Peru reported sexual violence by a partner. Among the countries studied, Finland stood out for having the lowest rate, 5.9%.
  • A study that followed 4,000 American women for three years concluded that the national rape-related pregnancy rate was 5% per rape among victims aged 12 to 45 years. Those incidents produce an estimated 32,000 pregnancies annually from rape.
  • A study of Canadian female adolescents found that 15% of victims experiencing frequent, unwanted sexual contact had shown suicidal behavior in the past half year, compared to only 2% of those who had not had to endure such contact.

The report states that millions of women endure such crimes because of the persistence of gender inequality around the world. The authors urge a greater focus on gathering information to help highlight the problem: “In many countries, data on most aspects of sexual violence are lacking, and there is a great need everywhere for research on all aspects of sexual violence.”

A 2009 report from the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Justice, “The Facts About Sexual Violence,” provides more current detail about such crimes in the United States.

Tags: crime, sex crimes

    Writer: | Last updated: May 19, 2011

    Citation: Krug, Etienne G.; et al. "Sexual Violence" (Chapter 6, PDF) of "World Report on Violence and Health," World Health Organization, 2002.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article "CBS Reporter Recounts a ‘Merciless’ Assault."

    1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Read the section of the World Health Organization report "Sexual Violence."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.