Wednesday, 9 December 2015

“One in three women” (9 December 2015)

Henriette Jansen

Results from surveys on violence against women from around the world done in the last 15 years helped enormously with getting violence against women on the global agenda which recently culminated in violence against women now also being included in the 2030 Sustainable development agenda.

Most of you have probably heard that one in every three women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. We have seen this on TV adverts, on the posters in the waiting room of the doctor, and indeed in important reports and campaigns by the UN and others.

One in every three women. Where does this number come from? And is it actually true?

Fifteen years ago, when the Beijing Platform for Action pointed out the scarcity of the evidence and called for collection of data on violence against women, almost no data was available from the global South and only very little from the global North. At that time some activists and researchers working on violence already used the ‘one in three’ statistic, actually a guesstimate at best.

Now, 15 years further, we have come a long way and we do have national survey data on violence against women from about half of all countries in the world. A recent WHO report looked at many of these surveys and concludes with ‘one in three’ women aged 15-49 reporting experience of physical or sexual violence at one point in their life. Most of this violence is caused by an intimate partner or ex-partner, husband, boyfriend; someone who is supposed to care for her.

‘One in three’ is now officially the global statistic supported by the combined evidence. Lucky for those activists who have been using this all along and long before we had the evidence! True, it differs within and between countries and between regions. For example, in Viet Nam three out of 10 women reported physical or sexual violence by a husband while in Fiji even twice as many women, two out of three report ever having experience physical or sexual violence by a male partner.

One in three. It is an important statistic even if it is not the whole story. This statistic does not tell us how often it happened, how severe, when it happed, how long it lasted or whether it is still ongoing. All that is also extremely important, but the ‘one in three’ is simply reflecting the proportion of women in the total population that had had such an experience at least once in her life. It speaks of very large numbers. It is particularly useful to raise awareness.

How do these surveys get these numbers? In violence prevalence surveys, the methods we use to measure how common violence against women is, involve using especially trained female interviewers who know how to build rapport, keep a woman safe and her story confidential. In a national survey, thousands of women in the general population are interviewed; any woman can be chosen, the interviewer does not know in advance anything on the woman’s life. The questions do not use the word ‘violence’ but ask about the experience of very concrete behavioural acts, such as slapping, kicking, strangling, forcing to have sex, etc.

One in three. I have often been asked if some women could be exaggerating or lying. I am sure this is extremely unlikely. We know from the surveys that many of the women who tell their stories to interviewers have never told anyone before about their experience with violence… Women usually do not share their problems with others because if her husband or partner finds out that she has been talking about him, he’ll beat her up again. Or she is afraid that she will not be taken serious, she will be blamed. The silence, the stigma and the prejudices cause that it is extremely hard for most women to talk about the violence that is happening to them; and this keeps the problem hidden. So we are much more likely that some women remain silent and we thus underestimate the proportion of women with violence rather than overestimate.

No matter how high the quality of this data, you should realize we will always underestimate the proportion of women with violent experiences…, even if all women that we interview will talk openly about their experience. This is because we will always miss the most severe cases. A murdered woman will never appear in statistics that are based on surveys. She cannot be interviewed in a survey! There are many more who will not enter in our statistics: all those who are hard to reach, for example those who are hospitalized because of the injuries inflicted to them by violent partners, those who are institutionalized, because of their mental problems after many years of psychological abuse and manipulation, those who are locked up by husband or relatives, those who are not given permission to leave the house or even to open the door and be interviewed by strangers, or those who are too afraid to do so. And we have no idea how many they are.

From now one, when you hear ‘one in three’ or any other prevalence rate from a violence survey, just think for a moment about the many women that we could not count. The reality is always worse.


Fiji Women’s Crisis Center (2014) Somebody’s life, everybody’s business! National Research on Women's Health and Life Experiences in Fiji (2010/2011): A survey exploring the prevalence, incidence and attitudes to intimate partner violence in Fiji.

Garcia-Moreno C., Jansen H.A.F.M., Heise L., Watts C. (2005) WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women. Initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s response. World Health Organization, Geneva

General Statistics Office (2010) 'Keeping silence is dying': Results from the National Study on Domestic Violence against Women in Viet Nam. Hanoi, Viet Nam: GSO.

Jansen H.A.F.M. (2012) Prevalence surveys on violence against women - Challenges around indicators, data collection and use. Expert paper prepared for Expert Group Meeting Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls, Bangkok, Thailand

Jansen H., Watts C., Ellsberg M., Heise L., Garcia-Moreno C. (2004) Interviewer training in the WHO multi- country study on women's health and domestic violence. Violence Against Women 10:831-849

United Nations (2015) Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

World Health Organization, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council (2013) Global and regional estimates of violence against women. Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence.

Author Profile

Dr Henrica A.F.M. (Henriette) Jansen is an internationally renowned expert on violence against women (VAW) research, with special interest in measurement, ethical and safety issues. She has 35 years world wide experience with the UN, governments and NGOs, working in public health and epidemiology in Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Middle East, Pacific and South America, of which the last 15 years exclusively in the area of VAW. Currently she is involved with UNFPA Asia and the Pacific Regional Office supporting national VAW studies and strengthening regional research capacity. She led VAW studies in the Pacific Region (2009-2013, UNFPA and NGOs), Viet Nam (2009-2010, WHO/GSO) and Turkey (2008-2009, HUIPS/KSGM/EU) and was Core Research Team member on the WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence (1999-2007). She (co-) authored on multiple journal article articles and reports, including an expert paper in preparation of the 57th CSW, where she spoke on two high level panels on VAW data. Email:

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