At some point in their lifetime, 7.2% of women aged at least 15 years experienced non-partner sexual violence, according to data published in The Lancet. Researchers reported the highest estimates occurred in central and southern sub-Saharan Africa.
"To lessen violence against women and build sexual equality is an important development goal for governments across the world," researcher Naeemah Abrahams, PhD, of the Gender and Health Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council in Cape Town, and colleagues wrote. "The addressing and prevention of non-partner sexual violence is a crucial aspect of achieving this goal."
Population-based data on experiences of non-partner sexual violence beginning at age 15 years were collected from 7,231 articles published from 1998 to 2011. Abrahams and colleagues used 77 studies from 56 countries to identify 412 estimates of violence; they also calculated estimates worldwide.
According to data, 7.2% of women worldwide reported non-partner sexual violence during their lifetime (95% CI, 5.2-9.1). Prevalence varied widely by region, with the highest incidence — reaching endemic levels — in central sub-Saharan Africa (21%; 95% CI, 4.5-37.5), southern sub-Saharan Africa (17.4%; 95% CI, 11.4-23.3) and Australasia (16.4%; 95% CI, 11.5-21.4). Lowest prevalence occurred in South Asia (3.3%; 95% CI, 0.8-3), Southeast Asia and North Africa/the Middle East.
Improved understanding of the problem of sexual violence and its risk factors is needed and may be achieved if countries have their own population-based data on sexual violence prevalence, the researchers concluded. Additionally, policies are needed, particularly "primary prevention interventions and comprehensive services to treat victims of sexual assaults," they wrote.
Kathryn M. Yount, PhD, of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University, described the study as "a landmark in its scale and rigor," in an accompanying editorial.
"[T]he major contribution of this study is its comprehensive inclusion of data to derive best estimates for the worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence against women," she wrote. "An estimated prevalence of 5.2% to 9.1% is unacceptably high on public health and human rights grounds and, hopefully, will spur timely and systematic discussions about the use of standard definitions and improved research tools and data collection methods to improve disclosure of a highly stigmatized violation."
For more information:
Abrahams N. Lancet. 2014;doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62243-6.
Yount KM. Lancet. 2014;doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62333-8.
Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.