What are Domestic and Sexual Violence?
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 behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, and psychological abuse and controlling behaviors.
Sexual violence is any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act 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. Every Year 12.7 Million People are physically abused, raped or stalked by their partners.
- Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women – are major public health problems and violations of women’s human rights.
- Recent global prevalence figures indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
- On average, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.
- Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.
- Violence can result in physical, mental, sexual, reproductive health and other health problems, and may increase vulnerability to HIV.
- Risk factors for being a perpetrator include low education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality.
- Risk factors for being a victim of intimate partner and sexual violence include low education, witnessing violence between parents, exposure to abuse during childhood and attitudes accepting violence and gender inequality.
- In high-income settings, school-based programs to prevent relationship violence among young people (or dating violence) are supported by some evidence of effectiveness.
- In low-income settings, other primary prevention strategies, such as microfinance combined with gender equality training and community-based initiatives that address gender inequality and communication and relationship skills, hold promise.
- Situations of conflict, post conflict and displacement may exacerbate existing violence and present new forms of violence against women.
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 first report of the “WHO Multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women” (2005) in 10 mainly developing countries found that, among women aged 15-49:
- between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime;
- between 0.3–11.5% of women reported experiencing sexual violence by a non-partner since the age of 15 years;
- the first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh.
A more recent analysis of WHO with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Medical Research Council, based on existing data from over 80 countries, found that globally 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner, in some regions this is much higher. Globally as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.
Intimate partner and sexual violence are mostly perpetrated by men against women and child sexual abuse affects both boys and girls. International studies reveal that approximately 20% of women and 5–10% of men report being victims of sexual violence as children. Violence among young people, including dating violence, is also a major problem.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior characterized by the intent to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner or other family members. The abuse can be established over time and in most cases, it begins subtly with insults, a shove or by alienating the survivor from family and friends. With time, the abusive behavior can be more frequent and severe. Domestic violence can take many forms such as:
- Any use of force that causes pain or injury, such as hitting, kicking or slapping.
- Abuse can include sexual harassment, sexual assault or manipulating a person into having sex by using guilt or threats
- Emotional and/or Verbal. Constant criticism, threatening to hurt loved ones or harassment at school or in the workplace
- Controlling a person’s income or financial assistance, misusing one’s credit or making it difficult for a person get or maintain a job
- Minimizing or blaming a person for the abuse, intimidation and/or threats or destroying property
Domestic violence is characterized by violent actions or threats of violent actions, including behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure or wound a partner.
Domestic violence is the most commonly used term for this kind of violence, but it is also known as intimate partner violence, family violence or battering. These definitions vary between states, countries and organizations, but they are all based in the same premise—the abuse of power and control in familial, co-habiting or intimate relationships.
Among the key findings
- 60% of Americans know a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault
- Three out of four (73%) parents with children under the age of 18 said that they have not had a conversation about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children
- 67% of Americans say they have not talked about domestic violence with their friends; even more, 73% have not discussed sexual assault.
- Even though 75% of Americans say that they would step in and help a stranger being abused, the reality is most people do not help.
- For example, among the 70% of women who experienced domestic violence and then told someone about it, more than half (58%) said that no one helped them.
- But 64% of Americans say if we talk more about domestic violence and sexual assault, it would make it easier to help someone.
What are the Roots of Domestic Violence?
Many factors can contribute to domestic violence, but none excuse hurting another person. Partners who are in healthy relationships respond to problems by talking things out together—or sometimes by seeking therapy—and do not turn to controlling or abusive behavior. You have a right to be respected in all aspects of your relationship.
The roots of domestic violence and other types of violent relationships are linked to power and control.
If one partner feels the need to dominate the other in any shape or form, whether it is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological, then it is significantly more likely a relationship will turn violent. Research has shown that people with abusive tendencies generally turn violent when they feel out of control. The Power and Control Wheel, originally developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, shows the elements of power and control that interact that create a pattern of violence and abuse. It can be viewed it here.
It is important to note that abuse is a learned behavior, which, in some cases could have been learned early on in childhood. An abuser may have witnessed domestic violence in his or her home and understood that violence was a means of maintaining control in the family unit.
Significant life changes, such as pregnancy or a family member’s illness, can also increase the risk for domestic violence to occur. In these cases, the perpetrator may feel left out or neglected and may seek to regain control over the survivor.
Additionally, in economic downturns, incidents of domestic violence increase exponentially. Factors associated with economic downturns such as job loss, housing foreclosures or debt can contribute to higher stress levels at home, which can lead to increased violence. Financial difficulties can also limit options for survivors to seek safety or escape and may have a more difficult time finding a job to become financially independent of abusers.
Attempts to leave the abusive relationship can also place a survivor at a greater risk for further abuse and, in some severe cases, may increase the likelihood of homicide. The increased sense of abandonment or insecurity can lead an abuser to have a heightened desire to control the survivor. This may make it even more challenging to find a window of opportunity in which he or she can get away from the abuser. For many, staying in the abusive relationship can be safer than attempting to leave at the wrong moment.
Effects of Domestic Violence
Families or individuals who have experienced domestic violence are in the process of healing both physically and emotionally from multiple traumas. These traumas can have various effects on the mind, body and spirit. It is natural to experience these, and acknowledging the effects can be an important first step in embarking on a process towards restoration and healing.
People who are exposed to domestic violence often experience physical, mental or spiritual shifts that can endure and worsen if they are not addressed. According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly three in every 10 women—about 32 million—and one in 10 men in the United States who experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner reported at least one measured impact or effect related to forms of violent behavior in that relationship.
Even though survivors may experience similar types of abuse, the response to trauma may vary from person to person. Many factors can influence how a person responds to short- and long-term effects of the abuse, such as the frequency of abusive incidents, degree of severity and the effects on physical health. The overall impact of domestic violence also depends on the individual’s natural reactions to stress and ways of coping with stressful situations. Other factors can include age in which the trauma occurred, previous exposure to unrelated traumatic incidents and extent of therapy or timing of intervention.
It’s important to know that the effects of domestic violence can be overwhelming to experience, and even to learn about. It’s common for someone in an abusive relationship to not recall many aspects of their personality before being abused, especially if they have been exposed to violence for an extended period of time. Sometimes, it may seem as if the violence defines their identity. But know the effects of domestic violence are possible to overcome, and it is possible to break the cycle of violence. Recovery from exposure to domestic violence is possible, and although it requires addressing painful realities, it also entails discovering new inner strengths, a process that needs time, space and safety to begin.
Trauma in the Body
When a physical danger threatens our control, ability to escape, or is something we can’t stop, we enact a natural instinct for survival. This includes the body summoning a tremendous amount of energy to fight or flee—short circuits. These short circuits ricochet through a person’s body and mind. This can result in shock, dissociation and many other kinds of involuntary responses while the violence is happening.
The short circuit stays with us long after the violence ends, and is the origin of the mental, physical and spiritual effects of domestic violence.
Many people who go through traumatic events may find that it can take some time to re-adjust and cope for a period after the event. The residual mental, physical and spiritual effects of domestic violence can permeate the daily lives of survivors, which make it difficult to heal. For some, there are severe effects in the immediate aftermath of an assault that may or may not last. For others, the effects come in waves and are not felt until the shock of the event wears off.
Effects of Domestic Violence
Abuse can have a serious impact on the way a person thinks and interacts with the world around them. The chronic exposure to domestic violence—and the stress fear resulting from this exposure—can cause not only immediate physical injury, but also mental shifts that occur as the mind attempts to process trauma or protect the body. Domestic violence affects one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors and can significantly impact one’s mental stability. Increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms are commonly observed among survivors of domestic violence.
PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event. Some common symptoms associated with PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and support, such traumatic reactions usually get better.
Depression. Depression is more than common feelings of temporary sadness. Symptoms can include prolonged sadness, feelings of hopelessness, unexplained crying, changes in appetite with significant weight loss or gain, loss of energy or loss of interest and pleasure in activities previously enjoyed. Depression can affect a person’s outlook, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This, in turn, can impact his or her thought process and ability to make decisions. In extreme cases of depression, people may even experience suicidal thoughts and/or attempts. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, refer them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK.
Depression remains the most common symptom exhibited by survivors of domestic violence. According to a study done in 2000, 60 percent of battered women reported feeling sad or depressed for extended periods of time.
Dissociation. Dissociation usually refers to feeling like one has “checked out” or is not present. In some instances of dissociation, people may find themselves daydreaming. But in situations where dissociation is chronic and more complex it may impair an individual’s ability to function in the “real” world, such as not being able to focus on work related duties or being able to concentrate on schoolwork.
One in seven people who have experienced domestic violence sustain a physical injury.4 Given the nature of the crime, it is extremely common to retain bruises on the arms from being gripped, broken bones or other physical injuries from abusive incidents. People experiencing domestic violence often cover up their injuries to avoid being questioned by others. Oftentimes injuries are explained by stating one tripped and fell, or breaking something that resulted in an injury. A survivor may avoid speaking openly about his or her injuries due to feelings of shame or because speaking openly about the injuries can place the person at a greater risk of being abused. If you or someone you know is experiencing physical injuries frequently, it might be indicative of an abusive relationship. There are resources to help you here.
Common physical evidence of domestic violence includes:
- Bruises or that look like they came from choking, punching or defending oneself
- Black eyes
- Red or purple marks at the neck
- Sprained or broken wrists
There are also physical effects of domestic violence that affect a person’s overall health. These result from trauma and can manifest immediately after an incident of abuse or later after the abuse has ended. Common physical effects of trauma include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Involuntary shaking
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Sexual dysfunction
- In women, issues with menstrual cycle or fertility
Coping with the effects of domestic violence can be overwhelming, often because the survivor’s control over the situation has been taken away by the perpetrator. When this has occurred, a survivor may have the need to self-medicate or use drugs or alcohol to help him or her cope with the overwhelming feelings. Engaging in self-injurious behaviors can also bring a sense of control over a person’s environment and serve as a release of tension. It is an action that is not always performed with suicidal intent, although occasionally it can result in severe harm or death. These are temporary coping strategies that can lead to deeper issues in the future.
In addition, domestic violence can change one’s worldview and outlook on life. Being in a situation where a person is being controlled by another can create feelings of hopelessness. A survivor may develop a negative outlook in which he or she may feel “damaged” or unworthy of a better life. A perpetrator can chip away at a person’s self-esteem with constant criticism or insults, which can lead the survivor to question her sense of self in relation to the world. A faulty belief system can contribute to feeling discouraged and apprehensive about the future. Domestic violence can also take away a person’s sense of safety and security, influencing his or her ability to trust others. Conflicts with spirituality are also common, especially in situations where the perpetrator used the person’s faith to control him or her. Survivors might feel unmotivated, empty or like reaching out is not worth the effort.
But know that the effects of domestic violence are possible to overcome. Although it often requires addressing painful realities, it also entails discovering new inner strengths, a process that needs time, space and safety to begin. With time spent healing, developing strong positive coping mechanisms and taking care of oneself, such reactions tend to become less severe and it is possible to reclaim positive relationships with others and yourself.