The first brief in this series discussed definitional issues related to domestic violence. This brief contains an annotated bibliography of international comparative sources.





The previous brief pointed out the difficulties with measuring domestic violence and carrying out comparisons of its prevalence across countries.  There are few reliable international comparisons and the main ones are discussed below.




  1. Claudia García-Moreno, Henrica A.F.M. Jansen, Mary Ellsberg, Lori Heise and Charlotte Watts, 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, 2005


This study collected data from more than 24 000 women in ten countries [1].  It used methods regarded ever since, as ‘gold standard’.


The proportion of ever-partnered women who had ever suffered physical violence by a male intimate partner ranged from 13% in Japan city to 61% in provincial Peru, with most sites falling between 23% and 49%. The prevalence of severe physical violence [2]  ranged from 4% in Japan city to 49% in provincial Peru. The vast majority of women physically abused by partners experienced acts of violence more than once.


The range of lifetime prevalence of sexual violence by an intimate partner was between 6% (Japan city and Serbia and Montenegro city) and 59% (Ethiopia province), with most sites falling between 10% and 50%.  In most settings sexual violence was considerably less frequent than physical violence.


Across all countries, between 20% and 75% of women had experienced one or more emotionally abusive acts [3], most within the past 12 months.


Women’s reports of experience of physical violence by a non-partner since the age of 15 varied from 62% in Samoa (62%), to less 10% of women in Ethiopia province, Japan city, Serbia and Montenegro city, and Thailand.  Commonly mentioned perpetrators included fathers and other male or female family members. In some settings, teachers were also frequently mentioned.


The highest levels of sexual violence by non-partners since the age of 15 years – between 10% and 12% – were reported in Peru, Samoa, and the United Republic of Tanzania city, while levels below 1% were reported in Bangladesh province and Ethiopia province. The perpetrators included strangers, boyfriends and, to a lesser extent, male family members (excluding fathers) or male friends of the family.


Best estimates indicate that prevalence of sexual abuse before 15 years of age varied from 1% (Bangladesh province) to 21% (Namibia city). The most frequently mentioned perpetrators were male family members other than a father or stepfather.


  1. World Health Organization, London School of Hygiene and South African Medical Research Council, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, 2013


35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.  Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, 30% of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner, with a range from 23% in high income countries and 38% in southern and south-east Asia.   Globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.


  1. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Hidden in plain sight: a statistical analysis of violence against children, 2014


In 2012, almost 95,000 children and adolescents under the age of 20 were victims of homicide. The vast majority of victims lived in low- and middle-income countries. As children enter the second decade of their lives, the share of deaths due to intentional injuries, including homicide, becomes greater, particularly among boys.  The situation is worst in Latin America.  


About 6 in 10 children worldwide between the ages of 2 and 14 are subjected to regular corporal punishment by their caregivers. On average, about 17%  of children in 58 countries experience severe physical punishment [4].


As children grow up, they become more vulnerable to other forms of aggression, including violence inflicted by their peers and intimate partners. Physical attacks among students are common, especially among boys. The prevalence of physical attacks against learners aged 13 to 15 ranges from around 20% to over 50%.  Worldwide, more than one in three students between the ages of 13 and 15 experience bullying on a regular basis. The experience of violence continues into late adolescence. Among girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, almost one quarter said they were the victims of some form of physical violence since age 15. Globally, nearly one in three adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 in formal unions have been the victims of emotional, physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands or partners. Rates of partner violence are particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.


Slightly more than 1 in 10 girls have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.  Most adolescent girls said they were sexually victimized for the first time between the ages of 15 and 19. However, a substantial share experienced sexual violence for the first time at younger ages.  Nearly half of all adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 who reported ever having experienced physical and/or sexual violence said they never told anyone about it.



Explanation of cross-national variation in domestic violence

In a cross national study of domestic violence (specifically violence against women, predominantly by an intimate partner) Arthur and Clark [5] reviewed six theories:

  • Resource theory suggests that the more resources a husband brings to a relationship, the more power he has, but the less likely he will actually resort to violence. When, however, a man's superior power is threatened by a wife's access to educational or job-related resources, he may resort to violence to re-establish himself as dominant.  There are therefore two versions of resource theory which predict opposite outcomes.

  • Exchange theory suggests that domestic violence will be particularly high in societies where its benefits to perpetrators are high and where the costs to perpetrators are low.

  • Culture of violence theory suggests that violent societies are more likely than nonviolent societies to permit domestic violence partly because where violence is used for conflict resolution generally, it is likely to be accepted as a means of conflict resolution within the household as well.

  • Patriarchal theory suggests that patriarchal norms protect men's ability to control their wives and justify their use of violence to do so. These norms have historical roots that emphasize female subordination.  Two indicators of patriarchal norms are the inhibition of women’s reproductive rights and great age differences between partners

  • Modernization theory suggests that modernization should enhance women's status and may be a reason behind a decreasing resource difference between men and women in a society.

  • Economic dependency theory suggests that, in nations that are dependent upon multinational corporate investment, governments will make the greatest concessions to corporate requirements for profitable environments, limiting, for instance, unwanted regulations on gender discrimination.

They test these hypotheses on information from the US State Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 158 nations. Countries were coded 1, 2 and 3 for low, medium and high levels of domestic violence.  The coarse grained classifications render their findings preliminary.  Considering the explanations separately showed that each had an effect, but the most important drivers were modernization and dependency, which may underlie the other four correlations.


Crimes against the person

Violent crimes (crimes against the person) fall into the following categories:  murder, attempted murder, common assault, assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, common robbery, robbery with aggravating circumstances and sexual offences.  International statistics on some of these crimes are collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  The sources of the information are police statistics and victims of crime surveys.  The international data forms a backdrop against which South African information can be interpreted.

Table 1 reports the average prevalence of crime per 100 000 people between 2010 and 2015 from police statistics, provided that there are at least two observations in the six years, in percentiles across countries.  


Table 1 – Average annual prevalence of crime reported to the police between 2010 and 2015 per 100 000 people































Number of countries






The available data from victims of crime surveys is much sparser, as can be seen from Table 2.


Table 2 – Average annual prevalence of crime experienced and reported to the police between 2010 and 2015





Median prevalence




Number of countries




Median reporting rate




Number of countries






Not every violent action is a crime, not every crime is experienced as such, and not every crime experienced as such is reported to the police.  Moreover, incidents are likely to be recorded more accurately over the last twelve months than over a life time.   Measurement should be interpreted accordingly.


Charles Simkins

Head of Research




[1] Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Peru, Namibia, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand and Tanzania.  Surveys were conducted in (a) the capital or a large city and (b) one province or region, usually with urban and rural populations. One rural setting was used in Ethiopia, and a single large city was used in Japan, Namibia, and Serbia and Montenegro. In Samoa, the whole country was sampled. In this report, sites are referred to by country name followed by either “city” or “province”; where only the country name is used, it should be taken to refer to both sites.

[2] a woman being hit with a fist, kicked, dragged, choked, burnt on purpose, threatened with a weapon, or having a weapon used against her

[3] These include: being insulted or made to feel bad about oneself; being humiliated in front of others; being intimidated or scared on purpose; or being threatened directly, or through a threat to someone the respondent cares about.

[4] hitting a child on the head, ears or face or hitting a child hard and repeatedly

[5] Determinants of domestic violence: a cross-national study, International Journal of Sociology of the Family,  35(2), 2009