The silent health toll of gender-based violence

November 23, 2018


The rise of the #MeToo movement has seen a renewed energy to tackle issues of sexual violence, harassment and structural inequities that contribute to the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. For many of us it has also awakened memories of sexual violence or harassment and has revealed a surprising truth: even when bodies heal, the mental health toll often endures.

More than a third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which has a dramatic impact on health. Violence results in physical injuries which can be life-threatening, an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and for pregnant women – who are sadly more likely to face intimate partner violence – a heightened risk of miscarriage and low-birthweight. The mental health impacts are as devastating. There is an exponential rise in mental illness including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation for women who have experienced violence and abuse. The reverse relationship is also true: women living with severe mental illness are significantly more likely to fall victims to violence. In fact, they are six times more likely to experience sexual violence during their life. 

Yet, so often, mental health services are not available for survivors of violence, and, where available, they are rarely integrated into the primary health care system. Providing women with comprehensive and gender-sensitive mental health services can allow them to take back control of their bodies, sexuality, and lives.

UNDP works with national partners to strengthen programming to address gender-based violence in an effort to achieve gender justice. Our work, rooted in the belief that comprehensive health and legal services are foundational to the achievement of women’s rights, includes partnering with civil society, and local advocates, to increase women’s access to services. Along with UN-Women, UNFPA, WHO, and UNODC, and with funding from the Governments of Australia and Spain, UNDP has helped create guidelines for essential services and actions to be taken by different sectors to address the needs of survivors of gender-based violence. These include mental health assessments in the health sector, crisis counselling as part of social services, and guidance for a rights-based and gender-sensitive justice and policing response.

In South Sudan, UNDP partnered with the government, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the International Organization for Migration to address gender-based violence as part of mental health and psychosocial support programs. By running support groups for women living with HIV, providing counseling and giving referrals for specialist support, women are getting the care they need.

We can learn from successful interventions to integrate mental health services with other critical components of health care. These include hospital-based support for survivors of gender-based violence, which provide social and psychological support along medical care, while also facilitating access to shelters and legal aid agencies, as well as community-based initiatives.  

As we join others in the #HearMeToo movement to help build a community that stands with survivors and charts a path forward for justice, let’s make sure to listen to the voices of all women, including those living with mental illness. While it can be haunting to unearth so much shared pain, it’s simultaneously reassuring to witness the resilience of women and girls coming together as a powerful force for change.