More than a third of all women worldwide are victims of physical or sexual violence, posing a global health problem of epidemic proportions, a World Health Organization report said on Thursday.
The vast majority of women are attacked or abused by their husbands or boyfriends, and common health problems they suffer include broken bones, bruises, pregnancy complications, depression and other mental illnesses, the report said.
"This is an everyday reality for many, many women," Charlotte Watts, a health policy expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the report's authors, told Reuters in an interview.
She said she was shocked by pictures this week showing celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being grabbed by the throat by her art collector husband Charles Saatchi. He has since been cautioned by police for assaulting her.
"We don't know the details of what is going there, but it does illustrate this happens to all women - it's not just poor women, or women in a certain country. This really is a global issue," Watts said.
The report, co-authored by Watts and Claudia Garcia-Moreno of the WHO, found that almost two fifths (38 percent) of all women murder victims were murdered by intimate partners, and 42 percent of women who have been victims of physical or sexual violence by a partner have injuries as a result.
Garcia-Moreno pointed to recent high-profile rape cases in India and South Africa that have put a spotlight on the treatment of women worldwide.
The brutal gang rape in December of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi sparked a global outcry and unprecedented protests in India demanding better policing of sex crimes. The woman later died from her injuries.
"These kinds of cases raise awareness, which is important, and at the same time we must remember there are hundreds of women every day who are being raped on the streets and in their homes, but that doesn't make the headlines," Garcia-Moreno said.
The report found that violence against women is a root cause for a range of acute and chronic health problems, ranging from immediate injury to sexually transmitted infections, to HIV, to depression and stress- and alcohol-related health disorders.
Women who suffer violence from their partners are 1.5 times more likely to get syphilis, Chlamydia, or gonorrhea. And in some regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, they are 1.5 times more likely to become infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, the report found.
The WHO is issuing guidelines for health workers on how to help women suffering domestic or sexual abuse. They stress the importance of training health workers to recognize when women may be at risk of partner violence and to know how to respond.
This includes ensuring that consultation rooms can be totally private and confidential, that appropriate referral systems are in place, and that women at risk from partners should not be sent back home.
In a statement accompanying the report WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the violence had caused health problems of "epidemic proportions", adding: "The world's health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence."