Violence and mental health


Globally, one in three women experiences violence.

Not suggestive jokes or catcalling or being the subject of creepy attention.

One in three women experiences violence, often at the hands of a man she knows, like a husband or father.

Or by one she does not.

One woman in three has been physically, sexually or mentally abused. Or she was killed by a man she may or may not know. But more likely does know.

Not for the first time, I wish I hadn’t fled my statistics class like it was on fire or full of frogs. Because sometimes – just sometimes – numbers tell the most extraordinary stories. And unlike great narratives comprising words, people tend to believe them.

One in three. So, no, when someone tells me they don’t know any women who were abused either as children or adults, I don’t believe them. Or I wonder why they think they need to say that.

“You don’t know that you know them,” I say.

If they tell me they were not abused, I thank all the gods, old and new.

It’s been 30 years since the Women’s Global Leadership Institute organised the first 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. That’s not a short time. Still – and I’m starting to wonder why I can’t find more people to talk to about this – I have never known a time when the particular vulnerability of women was not something I was aware of.

As many people everywhere have said: The world has never been a safe place for women and children.

I can talk to activists, feminists, doctors and social workers. I can’t always talk to my friends or family. Or I can have these bizarre half-conversations. We can talk about women or violence, but not both. Physical but not emotional abuse. Things that happen to adult women but not to children.

As a society, we’re willing to talk about some deeply dreadful things like kidnappings, gang violence, substance abuse, and Christmas traffic.

But we can’t deal with the dangerous existence of women and girls. It’s as if their pain hurts us more than it does them. Their survival stories are too difficult to listen to. That’s a special level of insensitivity right there.

In most places, violence against women and girls goes under-reported because of fear of not being believed, of being ignored, of retaliation by the abuser. Of the stigma it still carries.

One in three. According to UN Women: “Globally, an estimated 736 million women – almost one in three – have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). This figure does not include sexual harassment.

“The rates of depression, anxiety disorders, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV are higher in women who have experienced violence compared to women who have not, as well as many other health problems that can last even after the violence has ended.”

Not only does violence, sexual or otherwise, lead to mental health problems, but mental health sufferers are particularly at risk. Women and children who are already scared or scarred or cognitively impaired are easier targets.

Somehow, for as long as there has been a world to survive in, two of the things people insist on keeping secret have been allowed to thrive in a ghastly fusion: abuse and mental illness.

Men suffer too. A mentally ill or compromised man is more likely to be the victim of abuse at the hands of men and women. And a man with mental health issues is more likely to engage in abusive acts.

The term “intimate terrorism” is fairly new to me. I’m so disappointed in myself. How many people do I think live like this and yet I had not recognised it as a thing with its own identity?

A 2016 article in The Lancet describes intimate terrorism as “domestic violence and abuse characterised by a coercive pattern of physical violence, intimidation, and control.”

The same article, while acknowledging the very real threats to men and boys, takes pains to underscore the disproportionate numbers. How truly gender-based is gender-based violence. And I look at that definition of intimate terrorism and wonder how a man who behaves like that towards a woman he knows could possibly not be mentally unwell.

Somehow, millions and millions of women and girls (and I mean really young girls) survive human trafficking, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse and rape.

But don’t always. They don’t survive honour killing. They don’t survive femicide.

Don’t not listen to their stories. Don’t not believe them.

Remember to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there’s no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health concern. Many people suffer from more than one condition.


"Violence and mental health"

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