Domestic violence is part of the wider issue of gender violence, which the majority of the time is violence against women, a phenomenon that affects women of all races and all social conditions.
As an example, the statistics of the most serious consequences of gender violence in Mexico are staggering: Over 400 women and girls have been killed in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua in the last 14 years. According to the Mexican health ministry, about one in three Mexican women suffer from domestic violence.
In addition, thousands of women have become ‘desaparecidas,' or missing. Most women who were missing were raped and beaten before they were killed.
The phenomenon affects not only individuals but has a wide-ranging impact on the family and society as a whole. According to Noeleen Heyzer, former executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), “violence against women devastates people’s lives, fragments communities, and prevents countries from developing.”
UNICEF Mexico reports that in Mexico, four in 10 women report acts of spousal violence carried out against them, but only one in three commence legal proceedings. This violence against women is part of the culture and is one of the reasons female victims of domestic violence face serious obstacles when they try to denounce it.
In Mexico, as in many other countries, domestic violence is considered to be a ‘private matter,' part of the ‘normal’ behavior in a relationship, a fact reflected in many Mexican soap operas that show scenes of violence against women.
In addition, an aspect of ‘macho’ cultures such as the ones not only in Mexico but also in practically all Latin American and Caribbean countries is that many men consider themselves to be superior to women and believe that women should, therefore, be subject to the whims of men.
In addition, various cultural, economic and social factors, including shame and fear of retaliation from their partners, contribute to women’s reluctance to denounce those acts.
Violence can affect women in different ways, not only physically but also psychologically. For many of them, the psychological violence can be as devastating or even more than physical violence. Psychological violence can take several forms, such as calling a woman derogatory names, withholding money, forbidding her to work or to see her family, ridiculing a woman or insulting her in front of family or friends.
There is also a wide range of health problems that can be caused by domestic violence. They include organ damage, gynecological problems, miscarriage and exacerbation of chronic illness that can lead a woman to commit suicide in the most extreme cases.
Because of these effects, and particularly because of the extent of the problem, many experts believe that domestic violence should be treated as a public health issue, and apply an epidemiological approach to its assessment and consequences.
Domestic violence as a critical public health issue has been recognized by organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States.
As Carmen Barroso, director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere recently stated, “Health systems should be the main door for detection, treatment and support for victims of violence against women.”
As a response to the lack of resources normally devoted to this problem, the Inter-American Development Bank has encouraged member countries in the region to invest two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to address the effects of domestic violence on its victims.
Domestic violence is obviously not limited to Latin American and Caribbean countries. In China, according to a national survey, one-third of the country’s 270 million households cope with domestic violence, both physical and psychological.
A survey carried out by the China Law Institute in Gansu, Hunan and Zhejiang provinces found that one third of surveyed families had witnessed family violence, and that 85 percent of victims were women. Because not only men but many women consider violence a normal part of family life, only five percent among those surveyed said that their marriage was unhappy.
In recent years, there has been some progress regarding this issue in China. Among those efforts to call attention to the situation are some roadside and subway advertisements stressing the scourge that domestic violence represents to society.
At the same time, special refuges and community support groups for victims of domestic violence are becoming more numerous.
The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) has been playing a significant role in bringing domestic violence into legislation and policy-making processes. In addition, an alliance of civil society organizations has been established under a project called "Domestic Violence in China: Research, Intervention and Prevention," which has carried out some innovative actions towards the elimination of domestic violence.
In Russia, more than 14,000 women are killed every year in acts of domestic violence.
Natalya Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers, drew a dramatic parallel to capture the scope of the problem: “The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the total number of Soviet soldiers killed in the 10-year war in Afghanistan.”
Although there are some shelters, hotlines and crisis centers for female victims of violence in a number of cities, nothing close to an adequate, systematic approach to the problem exists. More stringent laws have yet to be enacted and enforced in the Russian Federation that criminalize all forms of violence against women, including marital rape.
Domestic violence is also rife in most African countries. According to a United Nations report, in Zimbabwe, domestic violence accounts for more than six in 10 murder cases in court. In Kenya and Uganda, 42 percent and 41 percent respectively of women surveyed reported having been beaten by their partners. Although some countries, such as South Africa, have passed legislation against domestic violence, that legislation is not fully implemented.
Domestic violence is also a serious issue in the United States where, according to the FBI, one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence at least once in her lifetime. Also according to the FBI, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between ages 15 and 44 – more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.
At a U.S. Senate Judiciary hearing on the issue of violence against women it was reported that there are three times as many animal shelters as there are shelters for battered women and their children.
Although the proportion of cases varies in different countries and even among regions of the same country, new laws are needed to curb what is a worldwide phenomenon of tragic consequences for women’s lives and health.
Cesar Chelala, MD, PhD, is the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication Violence in the Americas.