Incest, sexual abuse, rape, dowry burnings, infanticide or beatings of girls and women by those closest to them are turning into a global epidemic that too few countries are taking steps to curtail, a U.N. Report said on Wednesday.
Even with extremely spotty statistics, one fifth or close to half of the female population in a given country has been abused by a family member or intimate partner or dangerously neglected in childhood, says the report by UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund.
"No religion and no society sanctions domestic violence," said Mehr Khan, director of the UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy.
"Many countries and many societies, however, are reluctant to take this issue seriously because they regard it to be a private matter," she said.
"There is a stigma attached to talking about it that results in lack of information. And there's a reluctance on the part of state authorities to intervene because of that," Khan told a news conference.
The report, part of UNICEF's campaign against child abuse, was released to mark next week's gala follow-up conference to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing five years ago, in which violence received prominent attention.
It gathers other published reports and surveys but gives no fresh research of its own.
"Violence against women and girls continues to be a global epidemic that kills, tortures and maims -- physically, psychologically, sexually and economically," the report said.
Domestic violence is most pernicious because it is carried out by people in positions of trust -- husbands, boyfriends, fathers, stepfathers, uncles, sons and other relatives.
Even at the beginning of her life a girl may be the target of abortion or female infanticide in cultures where sons are preferred. During childhood, girls may get less to eat when food is scarce at the table or not get proper medical care.
There are 60 million fewer women in the world today than there would be if demographic trends were followed without intervention, UNICEF said in the 21-page report.
As the girl grows up, the violence can include incest, female circumcision, forced early marriage, forced prostitution or bonded labor. In marriage, forced pregnancy, beatings and dowry burnings as well as psychological abuse, such as isolation and intimidation, can follow.
The report continues to search for the causes of domestic violence, concluding that it cuts across all income groups. At times it affects poor women. But the reverse can also be true -- that women's independence and earning power is viewed as a threat leading to increased male violence, the report says.
Poverty, however, does make it difficult, often economically impossible, for a woman to leave home with her children.
"Poverty exacerbates and perpetuates domestic violence. When women are uneducated, when they are financially totally dependent on their partners and without any prospects for generating income or support they are more subject to violence," Khan said.
"When they are not familiar with laws and when they do not know where to go to seek help, when they are no networks with whom they can communicate, they are much more vulnerable.
Some, 44 countries, including 12 in Latin America, have introduced legislation against domestic violence, although enforcement varies.
In Africa marital rape has increased the spread of the AIDS virus, UNICEF, said, noting a Zimbabwean study that found 26 percent of women said they were forced to have sex against their will.
The report also recalled a U.S. study which found that 28 percent of a representative sample of women reported at least one incident of physical violence from their partners.
And studies in the United States, Fiji, Peru, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka showed suicide attempts were 12 times higher by women who had been abused than by those who had not.