Sexual violence has become widespread and impacts individuals of all genders, ages, races, professions, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. It has the detrimental effect on the lives of people and can be destructive for individuals, their families, and the community itself. This paper primarily focuses on sexual abuse of women, describes the reasons, the effect, and the consequences of sexual assault on the aggrieved women; it discusses what necessary measures should be taken to combat sexual violence among the female population all over the world and what preventive methods should be implemented.
Violence, in its general meaning, covers a wide variety of criminal and noncriminal acts. It can be of different forms, such as physical, sexual, psychological, and economic. All these forms may be used against women and adolescents during their lifetime. According to the World Report on Violence and Health (WHO, 20013), sexual violence is defined as any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature and sexual harassment conducted by any person (regardless the relationships with the victim) in any surrounding (p. 149). Such violence may involve different types of force applied to an individual: physical abuse, molestation, harassment at work or other sites, sexual assault, psychological intimidation, or other undesired behavior. These forms of violence may also occur in cases when a person is unable to resist it, for example, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, asleep, or mentally disabled (WHO, 2013).
The problem of sexual violence against women and girls is widespread and often causes many problems for its victims. According to the Declaration of the United Nations on Elimination of Violence against Women, violence against women is defined as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life" (United Nations General Assembly, 1993). The Declaration (1993) also defines such a specific violent behavior as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women, reflecting the pervasive imbalance of power between women and men (para. 5).
Violence against women includes the following types: emotional abuse (insults, violent language, blaming, disparagement, unjustified jealousy, invasion in the privacy of children); physical violence; economic violence (a husband forbids his wife to work outside the home, refuses to give money or provides it in insufficient quantities, takes money from a wife or children, conceals his income); sexual assault (forced sexual relations against the desires of women, rape, sexual abuse of children); threatening; the use of children against their mother; intimidation; isolation from others; female genital mutilation; sexual harassment in the workplace or other public places, femicide, and trafficking of women (United Nations, 2010).
Women and girls may be differently affected by the experienced violence. Various forms of psychological, emotional, and mental disorders frequently occur among females as a result of sexual or physical abuse (United Nations, 2010). It reduces a women's ability to work well and take care of their families; besides, they are unable to live a normal life. Other harmful effects of sexual abuse are a preterm delivery or a birth of a premature child, an abortion, or severe depression (WHO, 2013). The cases of death are not an exception; according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2013), women suffer domestic violence more than in 50% of cases. Very often, children witness violence that can also lead to a range of behavioral and emotional problems (United Nations, 2010).
More and more studies confirm that living with a violent partner can have a profound effect on women's health. Sexual violence has many negative health outcomes, occurring both at once and long afterward. It may cause not only direct effects (e.g., various injuries), but victims are also at high risk to have serious health problems in future.
Different studies show that women who have been physically or sexually abused in their childhood or adulthood have poorer health than those who have not experienced any type of violence. Their physical functioning may deteriorate, as well as their psychological well-being; they engage in bad habits or become addicted to nicotine more often and are more inclined to alcohol and drug consumption (WHO, 2013).
Sexual violence greatly affects the physical and mental health of women or adolescents. It causes not only physical or mental disorders but also influences the sexual and reproductive health (WHO, 2013). Suicides, the HIV infection or other sexually transmitted diseases and murders are the results of the sexual assault against women. It also affects the social well-being of the aggrieved; besides, they may feel shame or guilt as well as be rejected by their relatives (WHO, 2013).
Physical implications include traumas (bruises, fractures, and lacerations), chronic pains (headaches, myalgias, and abdominal, pelvic, lower back, and chest pains), the hyperventilation syndrome, overeating, sleep deprivation, sexually transmitted diseases, recurrent vaginal yeast infections, and the urinary dysfunction (WHO, 2013). Psychiatric or other mental disorders are very common among the victims of domestic violence; a considerable part of such females prone to suicide. Rape victims more often experience alcohol and drug addiction than the general population; such a habit may begin immediately after the act of abuse (WHO, 2013). The most common complications of sexual violence among women are the embarrassment, the depressive stupor, the sense of hopelessness, vulnerability, betrayal, the state of shock, denial, and distrust of others. Considering the long-term psychological consequences, they comprise depression, different types of phobias, eating problems (anorexia/bulimia), anxiety disorders, substance abuse, nightmares, and the most grievous consequence the suicide (WHO, 2013).
Risk Factors for Sexual Abuse
It is very difficult to explain the full meaning of sexual violence because it depends entirely on its forms and conditions in which it occurs. A wide range of factors that may lead to sexual violence should be taken into account namely, stress, difficulties in communication, low self-esteem, abuse experienced in childhood, alcohol or drug consumption, and social environments (including peers and relatives) influence on the perception of sexual violence (United Nations, 2010; WHO, 2013).
Violence on the part of an intimate partner or cohabitant is one of the most common types of sexual abuse all over the world. It could lead to the conclusion that marriage or cohabitation is one of the most significant factors of women's fragility to sexual assault. The latter may be caused by many aspects including:
- young age;
- sexual assault during childhood or adolescence;
- alcohol or drugs consumption;
- and involvement in sex work.
Women of all ages are subjected to sexual violence, but they appear to be the most vulnerable at the young age (WHO, 2013). Some kinds of sexual assault are closely connected with this aspect, particularly in the case of violence at schools or other educational establishments and trafficking of girls and women for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
Drug and Alcohol Dependency
Drug and alcohol dependency are among the most serious social problems facing women and adolescents. Another risk factor for the sexual violence occurrence is alcohol and drug dependency. Being under the influence of some substances, women find it more difficult to protect themselves and respond immediately to a warning situation. In such cases, they are the most vulnerable to this form of exploitation (United Nations, 2010; WHO, 2013).
Earlier Experience of Sexual Abuse
There is a view that the painful experience of sexual assault in childhood and adolescence is directly related to the sexual violence cases in adulthood. According to the national study of violence, women in the United States who were sexually assaulted in their childhood or adolescence were relatively more exposed to violence as adults, in comparison to those who had not undergone it before the age of 18 years (18.3% and 8.7%, respectively) (WHO, 2013). The effects of early sexual assault may become a reason for a wide variety of mental and sexual health disorders, domestic violence, or other widespread difficulties in intimate relations (WHO, 2013).
Another group of girls and women who are more at risk of sexual abuse are the poor. Very often, children from needy families are not under their parents supervision apart from school; that is why they are more vulnerable to sexual violence. The children themselves may be working, and thus, they may experience sexual exploitation or harassment in their workplaces. Poverty and, in many cases, the lack of education compel many women and young girls to choose the occupation that bears the risks of sexual violence, namely the sex industry, if they find no alternative (United Nations, 2010).
The Consequences of Sexual Violence
Physical force is frequently used in sexual abuse, and physical injuries and deaths are known to occur. Despite these grave consequences of sexual abuse against women and girls, the widespread occurrence of complications varies across the world. The most common consequences of sexual exploitation are directly related to reproductive, mental, and sexual health and social well-being (UNODC, 2013; United Nations, 2010).
Pregnancy Complications and Gynecological Disorders
Women who experience sexual abuse may become pregnant, although the proportion of such cases is different in various countries and especially depends on how widespread the use of contraceptives is. Approximately 15-18% of raped women and female adolescents became pregnant after the sexual assault. In many countries, the raped women are forced to give birth to a child or put their lives at risk terminating the pregnancy (WHO, 2013).
The experience of forced sex at an early age reduces a woman's ability to consider her sex life controlled. Teenage-girls who were forced to have sex, in future, will use condoms or other contraceptives rarely, increasing the likelihood of becoming pregnant (United Nations, 2010). The same outcome may also occur among adult women as a result of a non-consensual sexual intercourse.
Venereal Diseases and other Sexually Transmitted Infections
Another serious problem is venereal diseases and sexually transmitted infections. A high percentage of women who have experienced sexual abuse from their husbands, cohabitants, intimate partners, or any other individuals may be infected. Women and young girls who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation are more likely to contract infections such as HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease. Besides, experience has shown that various continence programs only enhance the risk of the HIV infection, pregnancy, unsafe abortions, and death (WHO, 2013).
Mental Health Issues
Adolescents and adults suffer from different mental and psychological diseases and other behavioral disorders after being sexually abused. Sexual abuse by a husband, a cohabitant, or an intimate partner exacerbates the impact of physical violence on the mental and psychological well-being. In most cases, aggrieved women and young girls suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress. They are more vulnerable to these kinds of health disorders. In case the rape involves physical violence, alcohol abuse, and depression have been primarily observed as well. (WHO, 2013).
Some studies found a connection between sexual abuse and sleep disorders, depressive symptoms, somatic complaints, smoking, and behavioral problems such as aggressive behavior, theft, and non-attendance (WHO, 2013; United Nations, 2010). Negative psychological effects remain for at least a year after the incident whereas problems with physical health tend to decrease during this period.
Women surviving sexual violence in childhood or as adults are more likely to commit or attempt suicide than other females. This connection remains even in the context of age, education, the presence of post-traumatic stress, and mental illnesses. Young girls may suffer from the suicidal behavior because of the experienced rape or sexual harassment in their adolescence. A study of adolescents found that the experienced sexual abuse is the leading factor in predicting the behavior that is hazardous to health, including suicidal ideation and attempts. Severe sexual abuse may also lead to emotional disorders and the suicidal behavior (WHO, 2013; United Nations, 2010).
Though it may sound odd, some cultures nowadays promote the idea that men cannot control their sexual urges and women are fully responsible for provoking sexual desire in men. The way families and the society react to sexual violence is governed by common ideas about sexuality and the sexual status of women. In some societies, the cultural "solution" to the issue of sexual abuse is the marriage of raped women with the perpetrator. Such a decision is reflected in the regulatory acts of some countries. They justify a man who commits violence in case he marries the victim. Moreover, the family of the perpetrator may cause pressure on the woman demanding not to report to the police or offering her financial compensation. Very often, men and other family members turn their back to the aggrieved women; in some cases, it can lead to ostracism or even the murder (WHO, 2013; United Nations, 2010).
Children are often present during domestic altercations. Approximately 60% of the abused women confessed that their children were usually witnesses of domestic violence. Thus, the latter are more likely to develop different illnesses. Having witnessed violence against their mother, they are at greater risk of a number of behavioral and emotional problems such as low self-esteem, depressive states, nightmares, complaints on physical and mental health, anxiety, and the academical failure (United Nations, 2010).
Restrictive Measures Against Violence
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which was adopted in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly, encompasses the problem of different types of violence, whether sexual, psychological or physical, at home or in the society. It was urgent to put an end to violence against females. Therefore, it is the most progressive project in the history of the mankind. For the same reason, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action were enforced during the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995 (United Nations General Assembly, 1993). Several initiatives have been undertaken by the United Nations and others to reduce coercion on women at international as well as national levels.
Since 1981, the twenty-fifth of November has been marked by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in order to focus the worldwide attention on this urgent topic (UNO, 2017). The United Nations Secretary-General�s Campaign to End Violence against Women leads the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. Its aim is to raise public awareness concerning violence against girls and women around the world. The Campaign lasts from 25th November to 10th December; the logo of the campaign for 2017 is Leave no one behind: end violence against women and girls. It encourages the society to militate against the violence and prevent all its manifestations (UNO, 2017).
Sexual violence is the serious problem of the society that has a great impact on millions of women and adolescents all over the world. It is controlled by many factors of social, cultural, and economic aspects. Any violence has a long-term negative impact on an individual's life, but some forms can have a particularly lasting effect. For example, sexual abuse in childhood may later lead to complications during pregnancy while violence in the child's adolescence can increase the risk of suicide and development of depression or cause alcohol and drugs abuse in the adult life. The impact of violence on women's health differs greatly, negatively affecting not only the victims themselves but also their families, children, and the society as a whole.
Have you got any questions?
Sexual violence against women and female adolescents has been a topic that has received the increased attention. All necessary measures should be taken to combat sexual violence among the female population all over the world. The initial objectives should include different methods on prevention of sexual violence against women and young girls, support victims of sexual assault, increase the probability of catching and punishing the perpetrators, as well as change social norms and improv3 the status of women. It is vital to develop measures that are appropriate for poor countries and rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of programs from both industrialized and developing countries.
Medical specialists should play a greater role in supporting victims of sexual assault from medical and psychological points of view and gather evidence to help a court prosecution. The health system is more effective in those countries where there are guidelines for the management of violences incidents and evidence collection; at the same time, these states have the well-trained staff that collaborates with the law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, putting an end to sexual violence requires active work with the government and the civil society as well as coordinated responses to violence in a number of sectors.