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Violence against women a public health priority

Published: 
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Washington, DC—Health services can take specific steps to respond to violence against women and help prevent its future occurrences, if they are equipped with the tools and training they need. These are the conclusions of a new manual being issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women, observed November 25.

The document, “Strengthening health systems to respond to women subjected to intimate partner violence or sexual violence: A manual for health managers” builds on other tools to help health care systems provide compassionate and effective services to survivors that address the consequences of violence and help reduce its reoccurrence.

This is considered urgent because at least one of every three women aged 15 to 49 in Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner, according to Alessandra Guedes, PAHO’s Regional Advisor on Family Violence. She noted that violence against women is a public health problem because it is associated with a number of significant health conditions, including anxiety, depression, suicide, unintended pregnancy, STI/HIV infection, unhealthy drinking, and others. It can also take many forms, including sexual harassment, physical/emotional/sexual violence by a partner, sexual violence by strangers and femicide, among others.

“Health systems and health care providers have a key role to play in mitigating the negative health consequences of violence, preventing reoccurrence of violence, and connecting survivors with services provided by other sectors such as justice and social welfare,” Guedes said. “By providing quality and compassionate care to women who have experienced violence, as well as to their children, health care providers can also help prevent the impact of violence on the next generation.”

PAHO and WHO encourage five specific steps health providers can take to support women who have experienced violence: 1) listen closely, with empathy and without judgment, 2) inquire about their needs and concerns, 3) validate their experiences, 4) enhance their safety, 5) support them to connect with other services. These form the mnemonic “Lives.”

The organisations have developed several evidence-based tools to strengthen health care providers’ abilities and health systems’ capacity to respond to women who have experienced violence, which are available online.

Although some progress has been made in preventing violence against women in the Americas, there is still “limited recognition of violence as a public health issue that imposes a significant burden for countries,” health ministers from throughout the Americas heard at the Pan American Sanitary Conference in September. “Few resources, financial or human, are allocated to these areas of work,” the health ministers were told. To improve the situation, measures should be taken to continue advocating for the recognition of violence against women as a public health priority and for increased investment by governments in its prevention across the life course, the report to them said.

—The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)

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