A World of Violence

A new report issued jointly by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Program, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime offers a first-ever assessment of global efforts to prevent and respond to interpersonal violence. The report highlights data from 133 countries representing 6.1 billion people, or 88% of the world’s population.

Scope of the Problem

The estimated number of homicides worldwide in 2012 was 475,000, making homicide the third leading cause of death for males between 15 and 44. That figure actually reflects a decline of 16% from 2000 levels. According to the WHO/UN report, however, homicides represent only a fraction of the health and social burdens arising from interpersonal violence, which disproportionately impacts women and children.

  • A quarter of all adults report having been physically abused as children.
  • 1 in 5 women reports having been sexually abused as a child.
  • 1 in 3 women has been a victim of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in her lifetime.

Particularly for women and children, violence contributes to lifelong ill health and consequent early death. Many leading causes of death—heart disease, stroke, cancer, and HIV/AIDS – result from behaviors that victims of violence adopt in an effort to cope with the psychological impact of violence, including smoking, alcohol and drug misuse, and unsafe sex.

Predictable and Preventable

The WHO/UN report calls interpersonal violence predictable and preventable, citing a growing body of research showing that much interpersonal violence can be effectively prevented and its far-reaching consequences mitigated. Drawing on reviews of the scientific evidence for prevention, the report identifies seven strategies for reducing multiple types of violence and decreasing the likelihood that individuals will either perpetrate violence or become victims.

  1. Develop safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between children and their parents and caregivers;
  2. Develop life skills in children and adolescents;
  3. Reduce the availability and harmful use of alcohol;
  4. Reduce access to guns and knives;
  5. Promote gender equality to prevent violence against women;
  6. Change cultural and social norms that support violence;
  7. Provide victim identification, care, and support programs.

Elder Abuse

The WHO/UN report pays particular attention to the problem of elder abuse, which it describes as one of the most neglected types of violence.  Noting that elder abuse has not been studied to the same extent as other types of violence, the report cites research indicating that 1 in 17 older adults report experiencing abuse in the previous month. Only a third of the countries surveyed, however, had adult protective services in place to investigate potential elder abuse and assist vulnerable older adults.


The WHO/UN report arrives at the following conclusions and recommendations:

  • Scale up violence prevention programs in all countries. Violence prevention laws are widely enacted, but enforcement is often inadequate.  Focusing on better enforcement of existing laws will likely lead to significant violence prevention gains.
  • Provide enhanced services for victims of violence. High-quality care and support services for victims of violence helps reduce trauma, helps victims heal, and prevents repeat victimization.
  • Develop evidence-based violence prevention programs. The report offers itself as a benchmark that countries can use to assess their own progress.
Simon Levshin