WMC Women Under Siege

Violent beginnings: The critical window to prevent intimate partner violence

There are various forms of violence that women and girls experience, but intimate partner violence is, by far, the most common, with one in three women affected globally.

And while a common approach to designing prevention programs for intimate partner violence includes targeting men and women in relationships, new evidence shows that the approach may be misguided.

A study conducted by researchers at the UNICEF Office of Research–Innocenti and East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania published in the Journal of Adolescent Health earlier this week examined the age that girls first experienced intimate partner violence and determined that in order for prevention programs to be effective at reducing the incidence of partner violence, both adolescent girls and boys must be targeted before they enter their first romantic partnership.

(Audrey Pereira)

The study, which was conducted by Amber Peterman, Jennifer Bleck, and Tia Palermo, found that on average women enter their first marriage or partnership at age 19, with many starting relationships before this age, and that physical or sexualized violence perpetrated by a male intimate partner begins, on average, three and a half years later. By unpacking these averages, the study found that during the first year of partnership, more than one third of women, or 39 percent, had already experienced intimate partner violence.

The study analyzed population-based data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) in 30 low- and middle-income countries. The researchers calculated the age at which women first experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence and how long into the marriage or partnership the violence first occurred and found that the results were remarkably similar across countries (ranging from 2.5 to 5.2 years).

Since the global average age of first marriage or partnership for women is approximately 18.6 years, this means that women on average first experience intimate partner violence when they are between 22 and 24 years of age. Women in countries such as India, Nepal, and Mali experience abuse even earlier—on average, at age 19—while those in Philippines, Cambodia, and the Ukraine first experience violence somewhat later—on average, between ages 24 to 25.

If programs target married women and their partners, they have already missed the window of opportunity for primary prevention interventions. Thus, the study concludes that it is critical to target adolescents before they first enter romantic relationships (before 18.6 years on average) to be effective at preventing intimate partner violence.

Age of marriage and IPV initiation among women in 30 low- and middle-income countries.

We know from prior research that younger women are at higher risk of intimate partner violence, but this study is the first that measures the global age of onset of intimate partner violence. So, what does this study tell us for current programming and research efforts?

First, we need more research on what works to prevent violence among young people. Evaluations of programs targeting adolescents and young adults to date have been few, inconclusive, and largely limited to high-income countries. Additionally, we do not know much about the experiences of unmarried or non-cohabiting adolescents with respect to intimate partner violence. And school-based programs to prevent dating and sexualized violence are viewed as one of the most effective types of primary prevention strategies for adolescents.

The study results imply that programs that succeed in preventing or delaying child marriage may only delay (but not prevent) intimate partner violence. Based on what we know, resources should be targeted toward addressing risk factors in childhood and adolescence and testing new interventions with adolescents to make effective strides in preventing sexual violence.

This study is just the first step. While the international community recognizes that preventing violence against women and girls is important for the health and vitality of families and communities, it is imperative that we continue refining our work so we can more effectively address this issue.

For more research on violence against women and adolescents, visit the Transfer Project and the UNICEF Office of Research–Innocenti. The Transfer Project conducts rigorous impact evaluations in African countries on cash transfers and a range of outcomes including early childhood development, youth and adolescent well-being, school enrollment and education, time preference, economic activities, and violence. 

More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Domestic violence, Sexualized violence, Rape



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