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Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women

Fact sheet N°239 - Updated September 2011

Key facts:


The United Nations defines violence against women as 'any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.'

Intimate partner violence refers to behaviour in an intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Sexual violence is 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 their relationship to the victim, in any setting. It includes rape, defined as the physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body part or object.

Scope of the problem

Population-level surveys based on reports from victims provide the most accurate estimates of the prevalence of intimate partner violence and sexual violence in non-conflict settings. The WHO Multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women in 10 mainly developing countries found that, among women aged 15 to 49 years:

Intimate partner and sexual violence are mostly perpetrated by men against girls and women. However, sexual violence against boys is also common. International studies reveal that approximately 20% of women and 5–10% of men report being victims of sexual violence as children.

Population-based studies of relationship violence among young people (or dating violence) suggest that this affects a substantial proportion of the youth population. For instance, in South Africa a study of people aged 13-23 years found that 42% of females and 38% of males reported being a victim of physical dating violence.

Health consequences

Intimate partner and sexual violence have serious short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems for victims and for their children, and lead to high social and economic costs.

Impact on children

Social and economic costs

The social and economic costs are enormous and have ripple effects throughout society. Women may suffer isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children.

Risk factors

Factors found to be associated with intimate partner and sexual violence – or risk factors – occur within individuals, families and communities and wider society. Some factors are associated with perpetrators of violence, some are associated with the victims of violence and some are associated with both.

Risk factors for both intimate partner and sexual violence include:

Risk factors specific to intimate partner violence include:

Risk factors specific to sexual violence perpetration include:

The unequal position of women relative to men and the normative use of violence to resolve conflicts are strongly associated with both intimate partner violence and sexual violence by any perpetrator.


Currently, there are few interventions whose effectiveness has been scientifically proven. More resources are needed to strengthen the primary prevention of intimate partner and sexual violence – i.e. stopping it from happening in the first place.

The primary prevention strategy with the best evidence for effectiveness for intimate partner violence is school-based programmes for adolescents to prevent violence within dating relationships. These, however, remain to be assessed for use in resource-poor settings. Evidence is emerging for the effectiveness of several other primary prevention strategies: those that combine microfinance with gender equality training; that promote communication and relationship skills within communities; that reduce access to, and the harmful use of alcohol; and that change cultural gender norms.

To achieve lasting change, it is important to enact legislation and develop policies that protect women; address discrimination against women and promote gender equality; and help to move the culture away from violence.

An appropriate response from the health sector can contribute in important ways to preventing the recurrence of violence and mitigating its consequences (secondary and tertiary prevention). Sensitization and education of health and other service providers is therefore another important strategy. To address fully the consequences of violence and the needs of victims/survivors requires a multi-sectoral response.

WHO response

WHO, in collaboration with a number of partners, is: