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Violence against women is global

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Wife beating and sexual violence against women are "common, widespread and far-reaching," says a World Health Organization report released Thursday.

The "WHO Multi-country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence Against Women" is based on a survey of 24,000 women in 10 nations. It says the percentage of women reporting having been physically or sexually assaulted, or both, in their lifetime ranges from 15% in Japan to 71% in rural Ethiopia. The violence has severe health and economic consequences, the report says.

"Domestic violence, in particular, continues to be frighteningly common and to be accepted as 'normal' within too many societies," says the report, the first global look at these kinds of assaults. All of the women surveyed had had a male partner at some point.

Women in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand and Tanzania answered the survey.

In the USA, about 1.5 million women a year are assaulted by a husband or boyfriend, and about one in six women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is a problem here, one that many communities face," says Diane Stuart, director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Justice Department. "This is a crime committed behind closed doors." Stuart says the isolation reported by domestic violence victims in the WHO report is also experienced by American women.

Fewer than half of the violence victims in the WHO survey said they turned to law enforcement authorities for help.

"The main message is that rates of violence are too high everywhere, but there are substantial differences between regions," says report co-author Lori Heise of PATH, a Washington, D.C.-based public health organization. She is also co-author with WHO's Claudia Garcia-Moreno of a commentary on the WHO report appearing in today's Science magazine.

The researchers found cultural norms to be a key factor in those differences. In about half of the places surveyed, women said it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife under some circumstances. Abuse victims agreed with that more often.

"Intimate-partner violence has a tremendous economic impact, just in the amount of time women lose from injuries (and) hospital stays, in the criminal justice system and dealing with insurance," says health economist Wendy Max of the University of California, San Francisco. She was part of a CDC study in 2003 that put U.S. costs at $5.8 billion each year, including $4.1 billion in medical and counseling costs from rape, assault and stalking of women.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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