Sexual Abuse Prevalence In The Developing World

By: Lance Williams

The desire to understand the world in which we live necessitates the study of the nature and prevalence of sexual abuse.  To comprehend on a grand scale the place that this particular abuse has in general across the world is to understand at a greater level the necessity for change.  While the collecting of data is challenging and defining the nature of abuse equally as difficult, we must continue to seek to understand the plight of those around the world as they battle many of the same evils without the same defenses and protections.  The next few pages are meant to be a high level assessment of the state of sexual abuse in the developing world.  While it is far from comprehensive, the hope is that the few studies mentioned would motivate more diligence in the reader to investigate more deeply the specific extent to which these issues are faced in by the people group or country for which he or she is burdened.

Sexual Abuse Defined

In order to summarize the nature and prevalence of sexual abuse in the developing world one must arrive at an effective definition of sexual abuse.  However, it has been noted in at least one study that arriving at clear and meaningful definitions of violence that allow for cross-cultural comparisons is particularly challenging.  This same study used the following behaviors to define sexual violence against women:  being physically forced to have sexual intercourse against her will; having sexual intercourse because she was afraid of what her partner might do; being forced to do something sexual she found degrading or humiliating.”  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)

Another consideration that will determine how one defines sexual abuse is related to what age group a person is studying.  One study that examined childhood sexual abuse defined abuse as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society.  (Butchart and Harvey 2006)

The Nature of Sexual Abuse

Interestingly, the nature of sexual abuse in the developing world is relatively similar to that in the United States.  After taking into account the difference in cultural sensitivities and norms, one study reinforced what has been true in the U.S. that sexual abuse is a fundamentally violent crime that is often associated with significant amounts of physical abuse.  In fact, this same study reported that between 30% and 56% of women who had experienced any violence by an intimate partner reported both physical and sexual violence.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)

Factors Associated with Increased Risk

Many of the factors associated with increased risk for sexual abuse in the developing world are similar to those in the United States.  This should not surprise us as sexual abuse is a fruit of a sinful human condition that does not respect political boundaries.  However, some factors are highly impacted by the socioeconomic level in which one exists which should motivate those who are wealthy to bear with those who are poor and seek to bring an end to extreme poverty.  The factors that were associated with increased risk were as follows:

  • Growing up in a violent or broken home. (Krug EG et al. 2002)
  • Substance abuse.  (Krug EG et al. 2002)
  • Social Isolation.  (Krug EG et al. 2002)
  • Rigid gender roles or controlling behavior exhibited by an intimate partner.  (Krug EG et al. 2002; Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • Poverty and income inequality.  (Krug EG et al. 2002)

Prevalence of Sexual Assault

The primary study used to describe the prevalence of sexual assault in the developing world was the WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women:  Initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses.  This study was composed by teams that collected information from over 24,000 women from 15 sites in 10 countries consisting of Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)  The study identified the following data regarding the prevalence of sexual abuse.

  • The proportion of ever-partnered women who had ever experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner in their lifetime, ranged from 15% to 71%, with most sites falling between 29% and 62%.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • Overall, the percentage of women who reported sexual abuse by a partner ranged from 6% in Japan and Serbia and Montenegro to 59% in Ethiopia, with the majority of settings falling between 10% and 50%.  The proportion of women physically forced into intercourse ranged from 4% in Serbia and Montenegro to 46% in provincial Bangladesh and Ethiopia.  Nearly one third of Ethiopian women reported being physically forced by a partner to have sex against their will within the past 12 months.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • Younger women, especially those aged 15 to 19 years, were at higher risk of “current” (within the past 12 months) physical or sexual violence, or both, by a partner in all settings except Japan and Ethiopia.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • The combined prevalence of physical and sexual violence by a non-partner after the age of 15 years ranged from 5% in Ethiopia to 65% in Samoa.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)

Consequences of Sexual Abuse

Domestic violence, and consequently domestic sexual assault, is by its nature often a crime that occurs in private.  Unfortunately, it has been recognized by at least one study that by virtue of this fact, these crimes are especially less likely to be prosecuted in the developing world.  (Krug EG et al. 2002)  As we consider further the consequences of sexual assault, we find several consequences of sexual abuse that impact the individual and the community in which they live.  Several of those consequences are listed below:

  • Women who had experienced intimate partner abuse were more likely to also report poor or very poor health, often complaining of walking and carrying out daily activities, pain, memory loss, dizziness, and vaginal discharge in the 4 weeks prior to the interview.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • Women victimized by intimate partner abuse experienced higher levels of emotional distress than non-abused women.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)
  • Pregnant women victimized by intimate partner abuse, both physical and sexual, reported more induced abortions.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)


It was noted in one study that the women interviewed were very eager and appreciative of the opportunity to share their story with the interviewers.  (Garcia-Moreno, et al. 2005)  One possible application in light of this unique and encouraging report and the prevalence of sexual abuse in the developing world is to encourage church teams to engage at a deeper level in the communities they visit as part of their missions strategy.  As churches move toward a more long-term investment in outreach opportunities, it would be highly beneficial to encourage deeper interaction among the teams sent.

In addition, much of the research recommended more proactive responses to the crisis of sexual assault in the developing world.  One study recommended an approach with four main emphases, the individual focus that encourages healthy attitudes and behavior in children and young people, the relationship focus that assists in establishing a healthy dynamic in families and communities in which we minister, a community focus that seeks to raise awareness of violence and motivates the community to action, and the societal focus that seeks to identify cultural, social, and economic factors that unwittingly contribute to an environment of violence.  (Krug EG et al. 2002)


Butchart A, Harvey A.  Preventing Child Maltreatment:  A Guide to Taking Action and Generating Evidence.  Geneva (Switzerland):  World Health Organization; 2006.  [cited 2007 December 14].  Available from:  URL:

Garcia-Moreno C, Jansen H, Watts C, Ellsberg M, Heise L.  WHO Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women:  Initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses.  Geneva (Switzerland):  World Health Organization; 2005. [cited 2007 December 13].  Available from:  URL:

Krug EG et al., eds.  World Report on Violence and Health:  Summary.  Geneva (Switzerland):  World Health Organization; 2002. [cited 2007 December 14].  Available from:  URL: