Aid to Africa will be high on the agenda when leaders of the eight major industrial nations meet in Scotland later this week. President Bush has proposed $1.7 billion dollars in U.S. assistance, including $55 million to help four countries bolster their efforts to combat violence against women. The White House says the money would complement its $15 billion program to fight AIDS because sexual victimization is one cause of the disease's spread. Although Africa is the focus of the U.S. women's initiative, the continent is not alone in this problem.
Be it Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, or Pacific nations, one thing is clear: There is no region on earth where brutality against women is unknown.
"Domestic violence is the type of violence you see the most cross culturally. In fact, it's probably the most prevalent form of violence," said Lori Heise. Ms. Heise is with the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, a program started by the United Nations AIDS Program last year.
"Except for a few isolated cases where there have been documented societies where there's very little violence against women, it's endemic in almost every place we look," she added.
Throughout the industrialized world, beatings by intimate partners injure more women than car accidents, rape, and muggings combined. World Bank research finds that in Norway, for example, one-fourth of female gynecological patients have been sexually abused by their partners. In developing countries, 20 to 75 percent of women interviewed report this experience.
Being young is no protection. The World Health Organization (WHO) says roughly half of the sexual assaults reported to rape crisis centers in several countries are perpetrated against girls age 15 and under.
Kenyan pediatrician Florence Manguyu, a former president of the Medical Women's International Association, says the problem fosters not only women's misery, but also social and economic stagnation.
"Violence against women [is] at home, at work, everywhere, in civil strife like we see a lot of in my part of the world," Ms. Manguyu noted. "You cannot develop when there is no peace. Why do we have to be so violent against half of the population?"
The health consequences for women are severe. The World Bank finds that domestic violence is a significant cause of death and disability among women of reproductive age everywhere. Battered women run twice the risk of miscarriage and four times the risk of having a low birth weight infant. They are also prone to alcohol and drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, risking exposure to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The risk of AIDS also increases for abused women in monogamous relationships. University of Michigan researcher Kristin Dunkle and South African colleagues reported last year, for example, that an abusive or controlling partner increases a woman's chances for HIV by 50 percent over women who live in non-violent households.
"That suggests the hypothesis, then, of course, that violent and controlling men are more likely to be HIV-positive than are other men. So that says to us then it's the violent encounter itself that is the source of risk for women," she explained.
The South African study reinforces findings from other parts of the world. According to the U.N. AIDS program, a recent study in India shows that 90 percent of women being treated for sexually transmitted diseases at several clinics had only one sex partner their entire lives.
In what kind of societies is violence against women worst? Lori Heise says certain characteristics distinguish nations where the problem is common.
"In societies where you see a lot of rape and domestic violence, you also see a lot of interpersonal violent conflict among everyone. Where there's a lot of violence against women, men often fight a lot and there's a notion that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. You also see a lot of economic inequality between men and women," she said.
Ms. Heise and other experts say no single strategy can alleviate violence against women and enhance female equality. They point out that the challenge is to encourage policy makers, health organizations, women's advocates and others to work together to reduce such violence and increase the effectiveness of HIV programs.
In proposing $55 million to improve the situation in Africa, the Bush administration notes that many African nations have already taken steps to improve women's legal rights, including new sexual offense laws and measures granting women greater rights to property and inheritance.