WHO calls for greater attention to violence against women with disabilities and older women

WHO calls for greater attention to violence against women with disabilities and older women
WHO calls for greater attention to violence against women with disabilities and older women

Older women and women with disabilities face a particular risk of abuse, but their situation is largely hidden in most global and national data on violence, according to two new publications released today by the World Health Organization (WHO). The health agency is calling for better research in countries that will help ensure these women are counted and that their specific needs are understood and addressed.

Where there is evidence of gender-based violence among these groups, the data show a high prevalence. One systematic review found greater risks of intimate partner violence for women with disabilities compared to those without, while another also found higher rates of sexual violence.

«Older women and women with disabilities are underrepresented in much of the available research on violence against women, which undermines the ability of programs to respond to their specific needs,» said Dr Linmari Sardinia, technical officer at WHO and the Special Program of the United Nations on Human Reproduction (HRP) on data and measurement of violence against women and author of the briefs. «Understanding how different women and girls are affected differently and whether and how they access services is critical to ending violence in all its forms.»

Intimate partner and sexual violence are the most common forms of gender-based violence worldwide, affecting around 1 in 3 women. Older women and women with disabilities are still subject to these types of violence, but they also face specific risks and additional forms of abuse, sometimes by caregivers or health professionals. These include coercive and controlling behaviour, such as withholding medication, assistive devices or other aspects of care, as well as financial abuse.

Among women aged 60 and over, a review by WHO found that physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner remains the most common form of violence. However, as their partners age, some women report a shift from primarily physical and/or sexual abuse to psychological abuse, including threats of abandonment and other controlling behaviors.

Older women and women with disabilities can be extremely isolated when abuse occurs, making it harder for them to escape and report the abuse. Stigma and discrimination may further reduce access to services or information, or lead to their accounts of abuse being dismissed by those responsible.

«Gender-based violence is rooted in unequal power and control over women,» said Dr Avni Amin, Head of Lifetime Rights and Equality at WHO and HRP. «For older women and women with disabilities, their dependency and isolation is further exploited by perpetrators, increasing the risk of abuse. Services need to be responsive to their needs and identify appropriate contacts through health and care systems so that all abused women can access empathetic survivor-centred care.’

WHO recommends several measures to address evidence gaps. Noting that older women are currently represented in only about 10% of data on violence against women, this includes expanding the age limit for survey participation. They also suggest the inclusion of questions related to different types of violence, covering a wide range of disabilities.

The two underpants, Measuring violence against older women and Measuring violence against women with disabilities, emphasize that older women and women with disabilities and their representative organizations should be involved in all phases and aspects of survey design and implementation to ensure that they are relevant and user-friendly. Formats such as Braille or EasyRead can extend accessibility.

The briefs are the first in a series on neglected forms of violence and were developed as part of the Joint UN Women-WHO Data Program on Violence Against Women, through the HRP. They are intended for use by researchers, national statistics offices, welfare and social care services and others involved in collecting data on violence against women. Funding is provided by the Overseas and Commonwealth Development Office of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Along with the documents, WHO has developed a survey module to support data collection on violence against older women to be used alongside existing surveys. Resources to support the inclusion of disability measures in such studies will be released later in the year.

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