The Price of Violence Against Women and Girls

March 7, 2013

World Bank Group Managing Director Caroline Anstey This piece first appeared on BBC Viewpoint

In Ethiopia, 81% of women think there are plenty of reasons why a husband can beat his wife.

In Guinea, 60% of women believe it is reasonable that their spouses beat them for saying no to sex.

As sobering as these statistics are, they are not new. Violence against women is endemic around the world, in rich societies and in poor.

Apart from the obvious physical and emotional toll violence exacts on women and girls, it is destabilising and dehumanising for families and communities.

There is also an economic cost to societies and countries that spirals out from that first punch inflicted on a woman or child.

But what's the true price tag of this violence? The fact is that no-one knows for sure.

Data and methods of estimating the prevalence and consequences of violence against women and girls in developing countries - and even in developed ones - are sparse.

It is time now to seize the momentum and demonstrate that violence against women and girls is not only a human rights or public health issue, but an economic and development issue, slowing economic growth and undermining efforts to reduce poverty.

That's why the World Bank and other institutions are now investing in ways to capture the full costs of violence - the pain and suffering, the burden on the health system and other services, the justice system, lost wages and productivity, as well as the impact on the next generation.

In our imperfect world, it may be precisely that price tag that will finally persuade policymakers, communities and societies to take domestic violence seriously”

It's hard to do, but we do have some insights.

A study 10 years ago in Australia estimated the annual cost of domestic violence at $8.4bn (£5.6bn).

A UK study put the estimate at $42bn.

These estimates included the broader impact of pain and suffering on children.

The estimated cost of women's lost productivity capacity was put at $1.7bn in Chile and at $34m in Nicaragua.

Direct medical costs plus productivity losses amounted to between 1.6% and 2% of gross domestic product annually - that's about the average annual public spending on primary education in a range of developing countries.

And most recently in Vietnam, a study by UN Women looked not only at women's loss of earnings, and out of pocket expenses - for medical treatment, police support, legal aid, counselling and judicial support - but also at lost school fees, with children missing school due to the violence inflicted on their mothers.

The cost? Nearly 1.4% of Vietnam's GDP.

And that number may well be conservative. Many women don't report violence and many studies do not, or cannot, capture the long-term costs or the effects on the next generation.

There have been recent protests against domestic violence across the world

Those effects can be insidious. Evidence suggests domestic violence witnessed as a child is repeated in adulthood.

Men who have seen violence in childhood are two to three times more likely than other men to become perpetrators of violence as adults.

Girls who have witnessed violence as children are more likely to grow up to become the victims of violence as adults.

And medical research from the developed world has established a link between exposure to violence as a child and health problems as an adult.

American children from a violent home are two to three times more likely to suffer from cancer, a stroke or heart disease and five to 10 times more likely to abuse alcohol.

So it is not just the costs of the violence today which matter. We need to think too of the future costs on health systems.

So what will it take to break this cycle?

We know there's no one single approach to ending violence against women and girls. It requires action on many fronts.

We need effective laws that are more responsive to women's needs.

We need quick and integrated support for victims - with telephone hotlines, emergency shelters, psychological care, programmes to help women become economically independent, and child welfare services.

We need education and awareness campaigns to help change public perceptions that violence is acceptable or can remain safely behind closed doors.

All these measures require concerted efforts. But the costs of action are far less than the repercussions of inaction.

In a perfect world we would not need to put a price tag on domestic violence to get it to stop.

It would stop because it is wrong.

In our imperfect world, it may be precisely that price tag that will finally persuade policymakers, communities and societies to take domestic violence seriously.

We need to have that conversation about a price tag now.

A concerted effort to capture the costs of violence against women and girls can shed light on the fact that all of us - taxpayers, businesses and governments - pay a price with every punch, kick and rape.

This isn't just domestic violence, it is ultimately national violence and it hurts us all.