According to the United Nations, about one in three women around the world has been physically abused by a male partner or family member and up to 40 percent have been assaulted by strangers. And with women comprising nearly half of the world's ten-million plus refugees, many experts say global peace and stability cannot be achieved without addressing the plight of women.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place for women, where most studies show widespread and systematic violence against women. United Nations officials report that at least 27,000 sexual assaults occurred last year in one Congolese province alone.

In Sierra Leone, the human rights monitoring group Amnesty International reports that an estimated 250,000 girls and women - - or a third of the country's female population - - are stigmatized as a result of sexual violence that occurred during the country's civil war in the 1990s. Only a few perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Women Fall Victim to War

Shiela Dauer, Director of Amnesty International's Women's Human Rights Program in New York, says violence against women often is used as a weapon in times of war. In peacetime, Dauer says domestic violence is often an expression of dominance by the attacker and a product of sexual stereotyping. "The problem is that women have been considered to be second class [citizens] all over the world. And that has led to a rationalization of discrimination. And allowing violence to occur without going after the perpetrators is a typical and widespread example of discrimination against women. So violence against women is worldwide and is recognized as a human rights violation," says Dauer.

U.N. research shows that about 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence in Zimbabwe are women, while up to 70 percent of Pakistani women are estimated to suffer physical abuse by men.

Domestic violence is especially prevalent in developing countries, says Sunita Kishor of MEASURE Demographic and Health Surveys, a Maryland-based group that provides technical assistance to developing countries. "In India, for example, 37 percent of currently married women have reported violence since marriage by their current spouse. And there's Zambia, which has over 50 percent [and] Uganda [with] over 50 percent of women reporting spousal violence," adds Kishor. The very high numbers you'll [also] see in Peru, [and you'll see] at least one-third in Nicaragua. So in the developing world, you can expect that one out of three married women would have experienced spousal violence."

Gender Violence Beyond War Zones

But domestic abuse is also common in industrialized nations, although at a lower rate. In Britain, for example, the government reports that domestic violence kills two women each week and accounts for almost a quarter of all crime.

All kinds of violence against women, according to Amnesty International's Shiela Dauer, constitute a global problem. "In the United States, one in every six women will be attacked by a partner. Worldwide, there are similar statistics. And sometimes the same kind of brutality that's used in war is used by a spouse or a domestic partner against their partners. And in times of armed conflict, usually women and their children are caught in the middle. It's quite a massive scale. For example, in Darfur, [Sudan], there are millions of people who have been just forced to flee their homes because
of attacks," says Dauer.

Women account for roughly half of the world's refugees and they often bear the burden of providing for their families while fending off physical attacks in refugee camps. For most women in these situations, violence is a way of life, says Heidi Lehmann of the refugee advocacy group, the International Rescue Committee. "Before these conflicts started, the women and girls experienced a range of abuses from domestic violence to forced marriage and sexual exploitation. Conflict really exacerbates the situation. So one of the things that we're left with figuring out is the best way to meet the long-term consequences, especially of conflict-related sexual violence. A woman who has been raped experiences not only immediate health consequences, but risks being stigmatized. And some of these women get pregnant because of the rape. And we have seen a number of situations where these children are not accepted into these communities," says Lehmann.

Abuse and Global Stability Linked

Numerous studies show that violence against women costs states billions of dollars in social services, health care and lost economic productivity. But the International Rescue Committee's Heidi Lehmann says that is only part of the picture. She says there is no question that the security of women and the stability of their home countries are linked. "You can't talk about the security of a nation when half of it is unsafe. And the challenge is bringing this issue to the top of the agenda because we are in a situation where hundreds-of-thousands of women and girls are being battered and abused everyday. And if we don't realize what an impact that has on a nation -- certainly a nation that is trying to rebuild itself -- then you are not going to have peace," adds Lehmann.

The extent to which the treatment of women affects peace and stability may become more conclusive in the future. But Brigham Young University political scientist Valerie Hudson says that would entail reexamining cultural norms, educational systems, and perhaps national foreign policies. "It may be that the prospects of peace and democracy in the international system are depressed when the situation of women is low. And that is something that we need to increasingly reflect upon as we think about what it is we [i.e., developed countries] really need to be exporting. We've talked a lot about how to export democracy. But maybe there is more mileage to be gotten [i.e., more to be gained] from an emphasis on improving the situation of women than one would get by the simple export of democracy itself," says Young.

The United Nations says much needs to be done to give women equal participation in peace talks and security issues. But to combat what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has termed "pandemic" and "pervasive" violence against women, many experts say men should be more actively involved in combating sexual stereotypes and violence.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.