The Man-Made Health Crisis in Yemen Cannot Wait for the End of the War: What Can Humanitarian Actors Do?

In 2017, only a few years into a brutal civil war, Yemen reported a cholera outbreak of one million cases, more than half of which were children, making it the worst outbreak in history. At the time, Yemen was already in the midst of what was considered a dire humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million citizens affected. A year later, the situation has become even more critical, with the United Nations warning of “the worst famine in 100 years” within the next few months if the war continues. Many more Yemenis have died from lack of access to basic needs, such as clean water, food, medical care, and sanitation, than fighting.

Yemen was already considered one of the poorest countries in the world before the war, with low rankings on all indicators of human development. However, the war has completely devastated the nation and the health of its citizens. Multiple outbreaks of infectious disease such as cholera and malaria, high rates of food insecurity and malnutrition, tens of thousands of trauma-related injuries, and widespread mental distress have exhausted the healthcare system. Almost 80% of Yemeni children reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an exceedingly high rate even when compared to other conflict-affected nations. Healthcare workers, many of whom have been unpaid for months or years, have been kidnapped, harassed, and killed, while hospitals have been directly attacked and bombed. Medical facilities are left with barely functional equipment, empty supply shelves, and sometimes no medical staff at all. One article detailed how the grandmothers of an infant born four months premature brought him to a hospital where they found no physicians, who had all walked out in protest the previous day after one of them was beaten up by one of the hospital guards. The grandmothers attempted to place the infant into an incubator themselves, but both machines were broken.

In April 2018, as long-term wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Sudan rage on, as a probable Rohingya genocide in Myanmar goes into its second year, and as natural disasters strike with increasing frequency and strength around the world, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The International Rescue Committee reports that 16 million people (almost three quarters of the country’s population) cannot access basic medical care, with more than half of the country’s already limited health facilities destroyed. What is left of the health system is Yemen is almost entirely sustained by contributions of medicines, supplies, and money by international donors. An estimated 9.5 million people were provided some form of medical intervention by the WHO and their partners in 2017 alone. However, the politics of the conflict have rendered even this emergency care inconsistent and unreliable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has occasionally had to cease providing services in some parts of the country due to sustained attacks on their facilities and staff by both Houthi fighters and Saudi warplanes. An intermittent Saudi blockade on Yemen’s ports has prevented humanitarian agencies from bringing in food, medicines, and fuel, and even when supplies can enter the country, distribution networks are insecure due to airstrikes and combatants. Like many of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the devastating circumstances are almost entirely man-made. It is not lack of money or resources that has brought Yemen to this point- the entirety of the budget that the Yemen Ministry of Health proposed for 2018 amounts to just three days of what Saudi Arabia alone spends on the war campaign.

Yemen would not be the first country to see the health and well-being of its citizens used as a bargaining chip in an intractable conflict. Alex de Waal, a professor at Tufts University and the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, called these types of man-made famines and humanitarian emergencies “economic war,” which is much more difficult to classify under international humanitarian law than a violent bombing campaign or overt starvation tactics. “The coalition air strikes are not killing civilians in large numbers but they might be destroying the market and that kills many, many more people,” he told The New Yorker. Couple destroyed markets with ruined medical facilities and it is clear that the quality of life of human civilians will be devastated for the long term. This is by no means a new wartime strategy. Perpetrators try to bring their enemy -combatants and civilians who are in any way affiliated with them- to the brink of humanitarian desperation to force concessions.

What is needed is immediate and meaningful action on the part of the actors involved in the war as well as the international community that is both providing the weapons and aid that sustain the conflict. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, outlined three requests to ease the humanitarian burden in the country. First, he called for guaranteed safe access throughout all of Yemen so that aid agencies can provide goods and services. Second, he demanded an end to all attacks on health workers and facilities. Lastly, he insisted that civilian health workers who remain in Yemen must be paid for their vital services. Similarly, a report by the International Peace Institute recommends that the international community, especially the UN Security Council, enforce compliance to international humanitarian laws and norms. Humanitarian actors must also work to coordinate their responses by sharing data, involving local stakeholders, and collectively pushing against blockade efforts. While meeting immediate needs is the clear priority, prevention and long-term health capacity building must also be pursued to both avert widespread catastrophe and prepare for the Yemen that will remain after the war ends. None of these actions must wait for a political end to the war, which is the only way to truly protect civilian life and ensure basic access to the human rights of food, water, sanitation, and health. However, these actions can push back against efforts by all sides of the conflict to use the health and well-being of Yemen’s citizens as pawns in the achievement of their aims.


Public Health and Migration

Throughout history humans have been on the move, migrating due to famine, war, persecution, and to find a better life. In a new age of “zero tolerance” policies and deeming humans “illegal” it is important to understand that how global policy defines someone matters.

There are many terms for populations that are fleeing disasters and we have to understand globally accepted terms for populations on the move.

    1. Asylum-seekers are people “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed”. Every nation has their own asylum system to determine who qualifies for protection and how they request this protection. If the petition for protection does not meet the host country’s criteria the individual may be deported to their home country.
    2. Internally displaced people have not crossed any borders to seek safety but have moved to another location within their home country seeking safety or shelter.
    3. Refugees are people who are forced to flee their home country in order to seek safety from conflict or persecution. This group of people are protected under international law and are not to be sent back to the situation where their safety is at risk.
    4. Migrants are people who choose to move for work, education, family unification, etc. These people can go back to their home country and continue to be protected by their home country government.
    5. Undocumented migrant is a person who has entered a country without proper documentation, or their immigration status expired while in the host country and they have not renewed their status, or they were denied legal entry/immigration into their host country but have remained in the host country.
    6. Statelessness is someone who does not have a nationality. Individuals can be born stateless or become stateless due to nationality laws which discriminate against certain genders, ethnicities, or religions, or the emergence or dissolving of countries.

These international definitions are important, because it determines if, how, and when the international community can respond to crisis situations. A large caveat is that due to national sovereignty under international law a nation must request that international organizations like UNHCR provide international assistance to these particular communities. If nations do not request assistance or reject assistance then these populations are left without any sort of protection leaving them vulnerable and isolated, as seen with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international community has also seen the inhumane treatment of people seeking protection to include isolated detention on islands such as is currently used in Australia.

No matter how the international community defines these populations, they face poor health outcomes due to disease, economic stress, and trauma. Examples include:

  • An increase in child brides among Syrian and Rohingya refugee populations. This in turn affects infant and maternal mortality rates as well as the woman’s future economic prospects.
  • Malnutrition of both mother and child leading to increased death rates for children under five and stunting of growth in children that survive. This is currently being seen in Yemen.
  • Decreased breastfeeding rates due to maternal stress, disease, and separation from familial groups/support systems. An increase in breastmilk substitutes in refugee or displaced persons camps is also an issue that goes against international humanitarian policies.
  • During the Mediterranean refugee crisis the international community witnessed large groups of people risking their lives on overfilled boats that often sank, causing large scale loss of life. These refugees then faced xenophobia, closed borders, and detention upon their arrival.
  • Currently in the United States there has been an increase in detaining families and child migrants from Latin American countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Organizations like American Academy of Pediatrics have begun to discuss long term effects this type of detention has on child and adolescent health outcomes such as: high risk of psychological stress that may lead to anxiety and depression due to separation and forced detention, suicidal ideations, victims of assault by other children in these detention centers, or sexual assaults from other detainees or employees at these facilities.
  • In South America sovereign nations have closed their borders or placed restrictive regulations on Venezuelan migrants seeking food, shelter, and basic medical care for their families amid a massive economic crisis. Not only do these migrants face arduous journeys, but they also face poor health outcomes like malnutrition due to starvation, and the potential for contracting diseases due to poor sanitary conditions, and consuming non-potable water.
  • Migrants are a vulnerable population who can succumb to human trafficking and the modern slave trade along their migration routes. Migrants that are caught up in human trafficking often face abuse (mental and physical), serious injury from due to extreme work conditions, and exposure to communicable diseases from overcrowded and unsanitary living environments.   

Humans take immense risks to seek safety and new opportunities that they did not have in their home country. As an international public health community, whether we work in crisis situations or not, we must make it a priority to treat all humans in a humane manner. Health is a human right, and should be guaranteed for all.  


Outcomes of Global Intimate Partner Violence

This is the third part of a IH Blog series featured this summer, Intimate Partner Violence: Global Burden, Risk Factors and Outcomes.

Written by: Erica Hartmann MPH, MMS (c) and Dr. Heather de Vries McClintock PhD MSPH MSW

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological (or emotional) aggression by a current or former intimate partner (Violence Prevention, 2017). Consequences of intimate partner violence (IPV) can be immediate, long lasting, and invisible. The physical impact of  IPV includes broken bones, lost teeth, hearing damage, and vocal cord damage due to attempted strangulation (Garcia-Moreno C et al., 2005). The World Health Organization’s multi-country study showed that women who were ever abused by their partner were twice as likely to report poor health and physical and mental problems when compared to women who were never abused (Garcia-Moreno C et al., 2005). Diagnoses resulting from IPV include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndromes, and asthma exacerbation (Crofford, 2007; Heise,Garcia Moreno, 2002). Additionally, violence during pregnancy is associated with miscarriage, late entry into prenatal care, stillbirth, premature labor, fetal injury, and low birthweight (Bailey, 2010; Garcia-Moreno C et al., 2005; Silverman, Decker, Reed, and Raj, 2006). IPV can have lasting, and often unseen consequences.

Intimate partner violence can be harmful to the victim and to the children in the home where violence is occuring. Studies from around the globe find that IPV is a leading predictor of child maltreatment (Hunter, et al., 2000; Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2006). Growing up in a home where the mother experienced violence is considered an adverse childhood experience, and is associated with greater likelihood of poor outcomes in later life such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide attempts (Felitti, 1998).

Intimate partner violence (IPV) has previously been linked with child mortality in countries including Bangladesh, the United States, India, Malawi, and Timor Leste (Hossain, Sumi, Haque, Bari, 2014; Mwale, 2004; Silverman et al., 2011; Taft, Powell, and Watson, 2015; Garoma, Fantahun,and Worku, 2012). A recent study using data from the Timor Leste’s 2013 Demographic Health Survey (DHS) showed that women who experienced physical violence were 30% more likely to experience child loss (the death of one or more children), and women who experienced combined forms of violence were 45% more likely to experience child loss when compared with women who had not experienced violence (Taft, Powell, and Watson, 2015).

We sought to uncover the relationship between intimate partner violence and child loss using the Togo demographic health survey (DHS) administered between 2013-2014. In addition, we investigated the effect of emotional violence which to our knowledge, has not been investigated in associated with child loss.  The Demographic Health survey is a nationally representative household survey that is administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This survey provides a wide range of monitoring and impact evaluation indicators and is developed in collaboration with the surveyed country. The Togo 2013-2014 DHS survey was translated into 13 languages and was administered by 90 highly trained individuals after gaining privacy and consent of the participant. The DHS survey assessed lifetime victimization of physical, emotional, and sexual violence (yes/no), and child loss (difference between the number of childbirths and number of living children, 1 or more coded as yes/ 0 coded as no). Covariates assessed included age, education, marital status, wealth index, employment, justification of wife-beating, and urban/rural residence. Data were weighted and analyzed through a bivariate logistic regression adjusting for covariates using SPSS version 14.

In total, 4842 Togolese women completed the domestic violence module of the Demographic health survey. In all, 36.5% of women reported victimization of physical, sexual, or emotional IPV in their lifetime. Women who experienced any form of IPV were 1.415 times as likely to experience child loss when compared to women who never experienced IPV (adjusted odds ratio (AOR) =1.415, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.227,1.633). Women were significantly more likely to experience child loss if they experienced physical IPV (AOR=1.340, 95% CI = 1.135,1.582), sexual IPV (AOR=1.488, 95% CI = 162,1.905) or emotional IPV (AOR= 1.325, 95% CI = 1.143,1.536). Women who experienced combined forms of violence were at significantly increased odds of experiencing a child’s death when compared to women who never experienced violence (AOR=1.479, (95%CI = 1.231,1.778). We saw a significant association between all forms of intimate partner violence and child loss among this population of Togolese women. This finding indicates a need for child mortality interventions that address intimate partner violence to reduce Togo’s child mortality rate.

Addressing IPV requires strategies implemented at the individual, community, and policy levels. Screening for intimate partner violence during prenatal visits and providing social worker counseling to future mothers reduces recurrent episodes of IPV and improves childbirth outcomes (leading to higher birth weights and fewer premature births) (Kiely, Elmohandes, El-khorazaty, & Gantz, 2011). Data also indicates that policies including support programs for survivors such as shelters, housing programs, legal services, have been effective in reducing negative outcomes. The World Health Organization outlines strategies through which policy can most effectively reduce the burden of IPV suggesting that the healthcare and other sectors should have minimum standards for addressing this issue. These standards include establishing clear working protocols encompassing clear referral pathways for survivors of IPV (WHO Response to IPV, 2016). The degree to and nature in which countries follow these recommendations varies dramatically with some countries aggressively attempting to address the issue while others failing to even acknowledge its existence. The consequences of IPV are vast and impact people all over the world. Public health professionals are at the forefront of tackling this issue and will continue to play a critical role in reducing the global burden of IPV.

Please stay tuned for Part IV in this series: Interventions and Strategies for Addressing Global Intimate Partner Violence.

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Erica Hartmann, MMS (c), MMS (c) 2020 is a student at Arcadia University who hopes to prevent violence by serving as a physician assistant specializing in primary care in communities with limited access to healthcare. Erica worked under Dr. Heather McClintock to uncover links between IPV and child loss in Togo, and hopes to continue researching global violence prevention interventions after graduating from Arcadia.

McClintock.PictureDr. Heather F. de Vries McClintock is an IH Section Member and Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health, College of Health Sciences at Arcadia University. She earned her Master of Science in Public Health from the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. McClintock received her PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on health behavior and promotion. Her research broadly focuses on the prevention, treatment, and management of chronic disease and disability globally. Recent research aims to understand and reduce the burden of intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to completing her doctorate she served as a Program Officer at the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and a Senior Project Manager in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania. At the University of Pennsylvania she led several research initiatives that involved improving patient compliance and access to quality healthcare services including the Spectrum of Depression in Later Life and Integrating Management for Depression and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Studies.


Bailey, B. A. (2010). Partner violence during pregnancy: prevalence, effects, screening, and management. International Journal of Women’s Health, 2, 183–197.

Crofford LJ. (2007) Violence, stress, and somatic syndromes. Trauma Violence Abuse; 8:299–313.

Garcia-Moreno C et al. (2005). WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic

Garoma, S., Fantahun, M., & Worku, A. (2012). Maternal Intimate Partner Violence Victimization and under-Five Children Mortality in Western Ethiopia: A Case-Control Study. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, 58(6), 467-474. doi:10.1093/tropej/fms018

Heise L, Garcia Moreno C. (2002). Violence by intimate partners. In: Krug EG et al., eds.

Hunter WM et al. (2000). Risk Factors for Severe Child Discipline Practices in Rural India. Journal of Paediatric Psychology, 25: 435–447.

Hossain, Sumi, Haque, Bari. (2014). Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women on Under- Five Child Mortality in Bangladesh. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(8) 1402-1417.

Family Violence Prevention Fund (2006). Programs: Children and Domestic Violence. Family Violence Prevention Fund. Available at: programs/children/.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . .
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Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive
Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8

Kiely, M., El-mohandes, A. A. E., El-khorazaty, M. N., & Gantz, M. G. (2011). An Integrated Intervention to Reduce Intamate Partner Violence in Pregnancy: A Randomized Controlled Trial, 115, 273–283.

Mwale (2004). Infant and Child Mortality in Malawi. Neonatal and Child Mortality. pp 123-132.

Runyan D et al. (2002). Child Abuse and Neglect by Parents and Other Caregivers. In: Krug EG et al. (Eds). World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, World Health Organization, pp 59–86.

Silverman, J. G., Decker, M. R., Reed, E., & Raj, A. (2006). Intimate partner violence
victimization prior to and during pregnancy among women residing in 26 U.S. states:
Associations with maternal and neonatal health. American Journal of Obstetrics and
Gynecology, 195(1), 140-148. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2005.12.052 

Taft, A. J., Powell, R. L., & Watson, L. F. (2015). in Timor-Leste, (July 2014), 177–181.

Violence Prevention. (2017). Retrieved October 03, 2017, from


Attacks on Healthcare are Beyond the Limits of War

In the spring of 2016, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2286, which had been cosponsored by more than 80 Member States. The issue behind the Resolution, which brought such overwhelming support from a sometimes fractious body, was the increase in attacks on medical staff and facilities in conflict zones. The Resolution was broad, covering attacks or threats against patients, personnel, transportation mechanisms, and medical facilities. It emphasized that such attacks are not only detrimental to those immediately affected, but for the long-term consequences on already fragile health outcomes and systems. Of course, these protections are not new, codified by the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the Additional Protocols from 1977 and 2005. However, an unprecedented number of attacks on health, many of which were occurring in the same few countries, led to this new push to pressure antagonists to cease their attacks and provide medical and humanitarian personnel with their due protections under humanitarian and human rights law. “Even wars have rules,” said then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Despite the strong words from the UN and organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), little action was prompted by the newfound interest in health-related attacks. As a result, attacks have only increased since the year before the resolution was passed; while there were 256 attacks in 2015, there were 302 recorded attacks in 2016, 322 in 2017, and 149 attacks in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Not surprisingly, attacks in Syria propel the bulk of these numbers, with the Central African Republic, Pakistan, Libya, and Nigeria rounding out the top five countries featuring attacks in 2017. Of course, with the imperfect methods of collecting data in these fragile countries, as well as fears of witnesses or survivors to speak out about perpetrators, it is likely that more threats and attacks exist than can be captured by these data. In fact, as attacks continue and even proliferate, medical workers who risk their lives documenting attacks and their outcomes have questioned whether their work is worthwhile.

In these fragile countries, where access to health care is vital in maintaining a civilian population’s ability to stay, fifty-six health programs were closed due to increased insecurity to the facilities and staff in 2017. Ambulances are destroyed or hijacked. Health workers are arrested or kidnapped. Some countries have attacks that are more specific to the nature of their conflict- for example, the occupied Palestinian Territories, where movement restrictions are common, reported the highest numbers for obstruction to the provision of healthcare. In countries affected by polio, such as Nigeria, vaccination efforts are common targets of attacks. Countries where terrorist groups such as the Islamic State reside see reports of fighters disguised as medical personnel to attack or occupy hospitals. While the mechanism of attack differs, the outcomes are the same: terrorized civilians, diminished health infrastructure, demoralized health workers, prolonged conflict, and a frustrated but ultimately immobilized international community.

Despite these grim reports, there are still actions that can be taken by stakeholders of all levels that can hope to at least minimize these attacks. A two-pronged approach is required: one focusing on investigation and the other on penalties. First, a robust investigation and data collection mechanism must be developed and, most importantly, implemented where needed. MSF president Joanne Liu urged the UN Security Council to conduct robust, independent, and impartial investigations of such attacks, noting that previous calls for such initiatives have been disregarded. In almost all cases where investigations are conducted, they are led and settled by the perpetrator themselves. Independent, well-funded, and rigorous investigations, coupled with new methods of surveying and interviewing witnesses and survivors, should be supported by the UN and civil society in such nations. Additionally, it is apparent that such attacks persist due to the lack of consequences on offenders. Perpetrators on or allied with members of the UN Security Council would be tasked with condemning or punishing themselves and each other, unlikely in the current environment of norms in the international order. While a strengthening of the commitment of states to international humanitarian law is long overdue, in the meantime, action is not necessarily limited to the walls of the UN. Some humanitarian organizations, such as Oxfam, are taking a more direct approach, petitioning states to stop selling arms to countries that have used these weapons to attack civilian infrastructure like hospitals.

Addressing the World Humanitarian Summit in 2015, ICRC President Peter Maurer said “Wars without limits are wars without end. Limiting wars is an intrinsic test of our civilization, and probably of all civilized worlds.” Public health advocates must insist that the international community draws a line on protecting those serving the world’s most vulnerable in the most challenging environments imaginable. While war may be inevitable, the erasure of the human rights of those involved is entirely preventable through collective advocacy and action. Much of the needed action lies at the institutional level, but individuals concerned with these issues can follow social media campaigns like #NotATarget, started by the UN and the theme of World Humanitarian Day 2017, or support NGOs tasked with delivering healthcare in conflict environments, either on the local level or with international organizations such as the ICRC and MSF. Lastly, organizations like Safeguarding Health in Conflict, Insecurity Insight, and Physicians for Human Rights produce data and reports about these issues that can be used to direct advocacy or propel research efforts.

Risk Factors for Global Intimate Partner Violence

This is the second part of a IH Blog series featured this summer, Intimate Partner Violence: Global Burden, Risk Factors and Outcomes.

Written by: Marsha Trego MPH and Dr. Heather de Vries McClintock PhD MSPH MSW

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a pervasive form of violence (most often against women, although men are victims too) which occurs in all regions of the world. Goal 5 of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, Achieving Gender Equality, calls for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. However, not all individuals are equally at risk for physical, emotional, or sexual abuse within their relationships. Understanding risk factors for IPV is imperative for the mobilization of resources to end violence against women. Global research and cooperation has identified risk factors for IPV at all levels of society, including factors within relationships, such as controlling behavior. This work has helped us to identify patterns in IPV perpetration and victimization around the world and how they fit within the context of culture and social change, with the ultimate goal of reducing the global incidence of IPV.

Risk factors at the individual level pertain to both the victim and to the perpetrator and include sex, the presence of sexually transmitted infections, mental health status, and substance abuse. The issue of IPV against men and within same-sex partnerships should not be overlooked even if  the frequency and outcomes of IPV against men are less severe and not well studied. The majority of research has focused on male partners acting against females. Research has identified a relationship between IPV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). For example, cohort studies have found that women who experienced IPV were significantly more likely to contract HIV. The spread of STIs may be a result of high HIV risk among violent men and limited sexual and reproductive health autonomy among women in violent relationships. Recognition of this relationship may serve as a useful tool for identifying IPV within the healthcare setting.

Mental health is closely tied with IPV, and research has shown that mental health issues, such as depression, are associated with IPV victims in both directions, i.e. that women who are victims of IPV are more likely to have depressive symptoms and women who have depressive symptoms are more likely to experience IPV. Likewise, mental health is an important consideration for perpetration of IPV, such that men and women who struggle with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or panic disorder are more likely to use violence against an intimate partner. Additionally, substance abuse has been implicated as a risk factor for perpetrators and victims of IPV alike. The western-centric focus of much of the existing IPV research is a limitation, and the role of mental health in identifying risk factors for victims and perpetrators of IPV may vary by country with differing mental health care resources and diagnostic capacity.

It is imperative to acknowledge that individual level factors occur within the context of social norms and traditional gender roles within the relationship and the larger community. Our behaviors are informed by those around us and our past experiences. For example, women who have witnessed parental IPV in childhood or who have previously been victims of violence are over three times as likely to experience current IPV. Furthermore, women who report that wife beating is justified in response to their behaviors, such as burning the food or neglecting the children, are more likely to be victims of abuse. Neither women nor men ever deserve to be abused in their relationships, yet this belief is widely held across many regions, with over 70% of women believing beating is justified in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Uganda.

Violent behaviors may be symptomatic of long-held beliefs about patriarchal family structures. Accompanying power imbalances in the home and community may support or condone the use of violence by men. Our recent research has focused on the relationship between IPV and controlling behavior, characterized by use of jealousy, threats, and accusations to limit a partner’s social contact and financial independence. Controlling behavior may be used in relationships to express or maintain power, and has been identified as a risk factor for IPV. Prior studies of controlling behavior have been limited to the association with one or two types of IPV within single countries or limited geographical regions. We carried out the first known study to examine the role of controlling behavior in IPV in multiple sub-Saharan African countries, including several dimensions of controlling behavior and three types (physical, emotional, and sexual) of IPV. We also considered the cumulative experience of multiple types of IPV and incorporated partner characteristics, such as partner education and occupation. In our study of 37,115 women aged 15 to 49 years in eight sub-Saharan African countries (Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zambia), we found that women who reported controlling behavior by their partner were 3.7 (confidence interval = 3.5-4.0) times more likely to have experienced any form of IPV than women whose partners were not controlling, even when accounting for multiple demographic and economic factors. Controlling behavior is not just harmful on its own but may also be indicative of potentially serious marital conflict and violence.

The slow yet steady progress of women’s empowerment around the world has brought traditional social rules into question. Particularly as developing nations increasingly implement policies supporting gender equity and the advancement of women, men may perceive a threat to the traditional, hegemonic expression of masculinity as breadwinner and leader. Potentially due to the evolving role of masculinity and gender in society, a counterintuitive relationship between women’s socioeconomic status has been found, such that women with higher levels of education or who are employed may be more likely to experience IPV. Although poverty has been associated with IPV, people of all socioeconomic gradients are affected by violence in intimate relationships. In cultures where men are expected to be providers, it may be that earning differentials between partners are a greater risk factor for IPV. In fact, relationships in which the woman is the primary earner are especially prone to expression of IPV, and unemployment among males is a risk factor for perpetration of IPV. Despite the challenges of transition and change, we must continuously strive to support gender equality worldwide to give women agency over their bodies and their relationships.

Although global research on IPV is still in progress, one conclusion that can be drawn is that the factors that precede physical, emotional, and sexual violence within an intimate relationship are complex and interwoven. Socialization of IPV within the community and efforts to maintain traditional gender norms and power balances feed into individual and interpersonal risk factors, such as witnessing intergenerational IPV, justification of beating, and controlling behaviors.  Thus, we see that there is no single target for IPV prevention, but rather that risk factors occur on a continuum across all levels of the ecological model. This means that there is no simple recipe for identifying someone at risk for IPV. Yet, given the emerging picture of IPV, interventions that support women’s empowerment while engaging both women and men in discourse on gender equality may prove effective as our world continues to evolve.

A first step in IPV prevention is education, and the World Health Organization provides several useful educational tools on violence and injury prevention, including a free, downloadable intimate partner and sexual violence prevention short course designed to teach people who are actively engaged in policy, prevention, and funding about IPV risk factors and prevention. The 2016 report, Community-Based Approaches to Intimate Partner Violence, by the Global Women’s Institute and the World Bank Group is a methodological guide that outlines how to address IPV risk factors and strategies for adapting IPV prevention programing in different communities around the world. With these tools and others and a genuine collaborative effort between researchers, policy makers, and community members to learn, grow, and share, we will get closer to ending global IPV.

Please stay tuned for Part III in this series: Outcomes of Intimate Partner Violence

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 1.19.09 PM.pngMarsha Trego, MPH is a recent graduate from Arcadia University’s MPH program where she completed her master’s thesis on understanding food insecurity among cancer survivors. Marsha began her career path with a B.S. in food science and minor in nutrition from Penn State University. There, she developed an interest in the close relationship between health and food, which ultimately led her to public health research as a way to strengthen our health systems from a fundamental level. Her research interests are varied and include nutrition and chronic disease, women’s health, intimate partner violence, and the leveraging of policy to achieve public health goals. Marsha is currently interning at the Psychology of Eating and Consumer Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where she collaborates on studies of the effects of the Philadelphia beverage tax and food labeling interventions on food and beverage purchasing and consumption. Her global health experience includes travel to San Pedro, Belize with Arcadia University to conduct door-to-door community health screenings. In her free time, she takes a French class and enjoys reading and travel.

McClintock.PictureDr. Heather F. de Vries McClintockis an IH Section Member and Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health, College of Health Sciences at Arcadia University. She earned her Master of Science in Public Health from the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. McClintock received her PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on health behavior and promotion. Her research broadly focuses on the prevention, treatment, and management of chronic disease and disability globally. Recent research aims to understand and reduce the burden of intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to completing her doctorate she served as a Program Officer at the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and a Senior Project Manager in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania. At the University of Pennsylvania she led several research initiatives that involved improving patient compliance and access to quality healthcare services including the Spectrum of Depression in Later Life and Integrating Management for Depression and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Studies.