Mental Health Impacts of Violence Against Women

ACEEL HAWA

Sexual violence and domestic abuse is both mental and physical.  Studies evaluating the link between violence against women and depression have demonstrated that women who have experienced violence were associated with much higher rates of depression than the general female population. Women affected by violence often also face significant levels of discrimination and stigmatization in society and in the fields they attempt to break into, partly due to the fact that these fields and services are rarely trauma- or violence-informed. Some initiatives are starting to be implemented in Ontario in order to alleviate such burdens, including the development of training curricula, as part of larger-scale violence and health research programs, and collaborative screening projects for women in mental health and addiction agencies.

According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, more than one third of women worldwide experience some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Although this can involve either intimate partner or non-partner violence, the former is the most common type of violence against women, affecting 30% of women globally.

Its repercussions, too, go well beyond the pain of the acts themselves; the violence can produce a host of impacts on physical and mental well-being ranging from injuries and disability to depression, substance abuse, and pregnancy-related complications. For instance, according to a WHO report on the nature and extent of domestic abuse and sexual violence, women affected by physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner are almost twice as likely to experience depression, to abuse alcohol, or to have an abortion. On a similar note, they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, chlamydia, or HIV. These women also have a 16 percent greater chance of giving birth to a low birth-weight baby. These numbers are even higher for women experiencing non-partner sexual violence.

        The impact of violence against women on mental health is particularly prevalent in South Asia. A recent study conducted in Pakistan outlined the numerous factors associated with depressive disorders among women, with marital and in-law conflicts amounting to close to 40 percent. A different study, also carried out in Pakistan, showed that the most common reasons behind women attempting to commit suicide were none other than conflicts with husbands and in-laws. Women who have faced such forms of domestic violence from husbands and/or in-laws are rarely presented with a resolution or way out because the system deems such acts of violence as acceptable.

Authorities and law enforcement agencies are often unwilling to intervene as such cases are considered as merely “domestic disputes.” In Pakistan, women are also often unable to abandon their marriages out of fear of discrimination, rejection from society, financial complications, and further hurdles to overcome when children are involved. All of this is to say that women are rendered more vulnerable to depression when faced with violence, stress, and feelings of inferiority in oppressive environments.

These data demonstrate how often violence against women manifests itself in today’s society and yet belie society’s inability to recognize the phenomenon’s scarring consequences. Fear of repercussions and stigma often prevent victims from reporting the violence or seeking help, which only masks the extent of the problem and leads to uncertainty about how to combat it. It is crucial for women to understand what resources are available to them and for health care providers to respond through adequate training and a referral system.

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