The WHO Report on Violence

Menstuff® has compiled the following information on the World Health Organizations Report on Violence.

When Victimization becomes Invisible
Does the Sex of the Perpetrator Matter?

When Victimization becomes Invisible

With great fanfare, the World Health Organization recently released its World Report on Violence and Health. The full report can be viewed online (1).

Violence is a problem that predominantly affects men. Men are twice as likely to die a violent death as women. According to WHO statistics, violence accounts for 14% of deaths among males, and 7% of deaths among females (2).

So let's examine the patterns of violence, and see how the World Report on Violence and Health addresses the issue of gender-specific victimization:


Suicide is the leading cause of violent death around the world, accounting for half of such gruesome deaths. According to WHO statistics, the global suicide rate for males is 24.0/100,000, compared to 6.8/100,000 for females, which represents a 3.5:1 gender disparity (3).

But the chapter on suicide downplays this striking sex differential. It is not until the sixth page of the chapter that this gender gap receives a one-paragraph mention: "Suicide rates are higher among men than women...On average, it appears that there are about three male suicides for every female one, and that this is so more or less consistently for different age groups, with the exception of advanced old age when men tend to have even higher rates."

Suicide is a problem that disproportionately affects males in almost every country around the globe. So it is difficult to understand why the WHO report fails to do an in-depth gender-specific analysis of the problem.

Domestic Violence

Chapter 4 of the WHO Report addresses violence by intimate partners. What are the facts of domestic violence?

Community-based studies on domestic violence have consistently shown that men and women are equally likely to be victims of domestic violence (4). This finding is not limited just to low severity incidents such as shoving or throwing a pillow. One analysis of FBI homicide statistics found that wives were the perpetrators of 43% of all spousal murders over a 10-year period (5).

Recently, psychologist John Archer performed a meta-analysis on 82 studies examining sex differences in aggressive acts between heterosexual partners (6). He found that overall, "women were slightly more likely than men to use one or more act of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently."

So how does the WHO report handle the domestic violence issue? The WHO report dismisses Archer's entire analysis with the disingenuous comment, "Where violence by women occurs, it is more likely to be in the form of self-defence" (p. 94). But research reveals the opposite: Women themselves admit that half of the time, they hit first (7).

Sexual Violence

In 2001, Human Rights Watch published its landmark report, "No Escape: Male Rapes in U.S. Prisons" (8). The Human Rights Watch report summarizes studies that conclude that up to 22% of male inmates have been sexually abused, and 7% have been raped. These figures suggest that rape of males may occur as often as the rape of females.

Despite this fact, the WHO devotes only one page in its report to sexual violence against males. The rest of the 36-page chapter is devoted to sexual violence directed against females, even though the report admits that "Most experts believe that official statistics vastly under-represent the number of male rape victims...research suggests that male victims are likely to suffer from a range of psychological consequences" (p. 154).

War and Collective Violence

An estimated 233,000 males and 77,000 females died as a result of war in 2000 (9). Unfortunately, the 3:1 sex differential in war deaths is simply ignored in the body of the WHO report.

Even when the report probes the non-fatal consequences of collective violence, the report closes one eye to male victimization:

Torture: A review of country-specific reports from Amnesty International ( and Human Rights Watch ( reveals that the victims of physical torture are overwhelming male. This fact escapes attention in the WHO report.

Landmines: The report states, "Over 30 million mines were laid in Afghanistan in the 1980s" (p. 224), but does not mention that 93% of Afghan landmine victims are male (10).

Refugees: The report notes, "Single and isolated refugees, as well as women who are heads of households, may be at particular risk of suffering psychological stress" (p. 224). It is irrational to imply, as this sentence does, that single refugee men who are heads of households are not also at risk of suffering from stress.


Violence is a growing concern in our modern world, and the intent of the WHO report is commendable. There are certain types of violence for which women are greater risk than men in certain parts of the world. Violence should not be condoned, and it is good that the WHO report highlights these forms of gender-specific violence.

But overall, the WHO Report on Violence and Health selectively presents the data in a way that emphasizes the effects of violence on women, and minimizes its effects on men. In its discussion of suicide, domestic violence, sexual violence, and collective violence, violence against men simply fades to the background.

A clear pattern emerges that when women are harmed by violence, gender matters. But when men become the victim, gender is downplayed or ignored altogether.

That is a double-standard that does violence to decency and common sense.

To express your concerns about the WHO Report on Violence and Health, contact:

World Health Organization, Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention, 20 Avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland TEL: + 41 (22) 791 3480; FAX: + 41 (22) 791 4332


3. WHO: The World Health Report 2001: Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope, chapter 2.
5. Mercy JA, Saltzman LE. Fatal violence among spouses in the United States, 1975-85. American Journal of Public Health Vol. 79, pp. 595-599, 1989.
6. John Archer. Sex Differences in Aggression between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin Vol. 126, pp. 651-680, 2000.
7. Straus MA. The Controversy over Domestic Violence by Women: Methodological, Theoretical, and Sociology of Science Analysis. In Arriaga XB and Oskamp S, editors: Violence in Intimate Relationships. Sage Publishers, 1999.

Does the Sex of the Perpetrator Matter?

Even though violence is a problem that predominantly affects men, we criticized the above WHO Report as being biased because it emphasizes the less frequent instances of violence against women.

But some persons have taken issue with this conclusion. They argue that since men are more likely to be the perpetrators of violence, then isn't the emphasis on female victimization justified? In other words, shouldn't male-on-male violence be less worrisome than male-on-female violence?

Our response is that we believe the sex of the perpetrator is irrelevant to the issue. Consider these questions:

1. Mothers are more likely than fathers to abuse their children. When daughters are being harmed, should society be less worried about that because it represents female-on-female abuse?

2. In almost all cases, the persons who abduct infants from hospitals are female. When a woman abucts a baby girl from the hospital, is that less of a concern then when a woman robs a baby boy?

3. Several recent books reveal that up to one-quarter of all lesbian relationships are affected by domestic violence (2-4). Should victims of lesbian partner aggression be ignored because they have have been involved in female-on-female violence?

4. In Africa, the practitioners of female genital mutilation are female. Does that fact make female genital mutilation a less gruesome procedure?

We believe the answer to all four questions is "No." Our compassion for the victim of abuse, aggression, or violence should not be diminished by the gender, race, or any other characteristic of the perpetrator. A person who has been harmed by violence warrants our concern, regardless of the sex of the person who caused the injury.

So we come back to the assumption implicit in the WHO Report that male victims of violence deserve less attention and services than female victims -- doesn't this represent a pernicious example of a gender double-standard?

Contact Information:

Etienne Krug, World Health Organization, Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention, 20 Avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, FAX: + 41 (22) 791 4332, TEL: + 41 (22) 791 3480 (Cost of first-class postage from the United States: 80 cents)


1. Men's Health America. The WHO Violence Report: When Victimization Becomes Invisible. October 17, 2002. menshealth/message/596

2. Girshick LB. Woman to woman sexual violence: Does she call it rape? Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

3. Kaschack E (editor). Intimate betrayal: Domestic violence in lesbian relationships. Haworth, 2002.

4. Ristock I. No more secrets: Violence in lesbian relationships. Routledge, 2002.

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In violence we forget who we are. - Mary McCarthy

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