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Not Just Stranger Danger, Violence as a Public Health Problem

TW: violence, sexual assault, abuse

For every day of 2017, 82 women were murdered by a current or former partner. So, should we be focusing on working with men in the fight against intimate partner violence (IPV)?

Who is more dangerous to a woman, a stranger or a partner? Instinct forged through years of repeatedly hearing loved ones stress the importance of not walking alone at night might prompt you to answer “stranger”. However, according to global estimates published by the WHO, the majority of violence experienced by women is at the hands of an intimate partner. This is in stark contrast to the situation for men, who are much more likely to experience violence from a stranger.  

Whilst domestic violence is often used interchangeably with IPV, IPV specifically addresses the physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse directed towards a spouse, ex-spouse, casual or formal partner. Worldwide, almost one third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, although it is worth noting that there is substantial regional variation to this estimate. Perhaps even more shockingly, the risk of IPV increases during pregnancy and is most commonly perpetrated by the father of the unborn child. IPV is therefore of global concern and undoubtedly reaps devastating, long-lasting physical and mental impacts on the recipients. For example, women who have experienced IPV are also two times more likely to experience depression and have alcohol-use disorders. 

Therefore, since the WHO corroborates that intimate partner and sexual violence are mostly perpetrated by men against women, the majority of interventions aiming to reduce IPV have focused on improving advocacy against gender-based violence, coupled with programmes for female empowerment. However, there is only a small amount of literature exploring the effectiveness of interventions targeting men, as individual perpetrators or at the community level, to reduce IPV against women.

Unsurprisingly, this approach is pretty controversial, with many questioning whether it’s right to engage men at all. One argument in the field is that these kind of interventions divert resources and attention from women as survivors of IPV, who, arguably, have already suffered as a consequence of a historical, societal tendency to revere men. So why should interventions with limited time and resources also then focus on the latter at cost to the victims? 

Well, when we examine the evidence from around the world, there are few–if any– examples of where violence prevention work with men has directly diverted funding from programmes for women. Moreover, whilst some groups have stressed that male involvement in IPV prevention risks diminishing female autonomy, there are male-focused interventions that have done no such thing. For example, the White Ribbon Campaign in Australia claims to be “male-led in the battle against IPV”, but in 2013 had just 36% of its community events organised by men. Perhaps the greater concern should therefore be whether men will actually engage with these interventions. There is even less strong evidence to suggest engaging men to end violence against women really works, which begs the question – why bother? 

Well, a paucity of strong evidence does not mean we shouldn’t try, especially as it is likely a reflection of the difficulty evaluating the effectiveness of interventions targeting behaviour change, ingrained social norms and those reliant on self-reporting. 

The universal scale of the IPV does mean that there are many context-specific avenues for intervention which we need to explore to consider our key question: globally, how much, and in what ways, should we work with men in order to prevent intimate partner violence against women?

Further reading / References

About the Authors

The Prevention of Violence Against Women London Polygeia team is comprised of five members: co-editors Dani and Rachel, and researchers Anita, Shiron and Angeline. Between us, we traverse the sciences and the arts, with some members attending to patients on the wards and others uncovering the latest journalistic scoop.

Rachel is a Control of Infectious Diseases MSc student who will be based in Rwanda over the summer to assess the burden of severe pneumonia in infants. 


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