Globally, one in 14 women aged 15 or older report being sexually assaulted by someone other than an intimate partner, according to new research following high-profile rape cases in India.
Countries in central and southern sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates of sexual violence, while south Asian countries have the lowest rates, and the problem is probably underestimated because of under-reporting stemming from stigma, according to scientists led by Naeemah Abrahams from the South African Medical Research Council. Their research was published today in the Lancet medical journal.
The authors made estimates of prevalence of sexual violence in 56 countries through a search of previous research published between 1998 and 2011. Other systematic reviews have shown that non-partner sexual violence can lead to long-term health consequences, particularly mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse, the authors said.
“Despite the limitations of the existing data, we found that sexual violence is a common experience for women,” they said in the published paper. “The psychological effects of sexual violence and the high prevalence we found confirm that it is a pressing health and human rights concern.”
The research follows a study published in September showing that almost one in four men surveyed in Asia said they committed rape at least once. Repeated reports of gang rapes in India have drawn attention to the scale of sexual violence against women.
Prevalence in central sub-Saharan Africa was estimated at 21 percent, followed by southern sub-Saharan Africa at 17 percent, Australasia at 16 percent and Andean Latin America at 16 percent.
The study was constrained by the limited availability of good-quality population-based data, the authors said. Eight regions had data from only one country and many countries had no data at all, they said.
Nevertheless, the study is a “landmark” in its scale and rigor, Kathryn Yount at Emory University in Atlanta said in a comment accompanying the article.
“The data confirm that non-partner sexual violence is neither rare nor geographically isolated and, thus, that existing laws and systems of accountability remain inadequate,” she said. “Effective responses will require widespread legal and institutional change.”