Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse:
An International Survey and Literature Review

Background of the problem

Despite the substantial progress of women's human rights movements around the world, violence against women - in all of its forms - continues unabated. Intimate partner sexual abuse (IPSA) is one of the most disturbing forms of such violence in part because cultures worldwide normalize men’s sexual coercion and abuse of their wives and girlfriends to such an extent that such behavior is usually not even viewed as wrong or criminal. Indeed, IPSA seems built in to the gender identities and gender expectations of cultures across the globe, and some religious texts have even been misapplied to condone forced sex and forced impregnation in marriage.

Contributed by

Kim Slote
Carrie Cuthbert

National Violence Agatinst Women Prevention Research Center

Women’s Rights Network
Wellesley Centers for Women  

The result is that victim/survivors of IPSA are extremely reluctant to talk about it, society does not consider it a problem, and perpetrators cannot understand that what they have done is wrong. Even in countries which have made great strides in bringing physical domestic violence and the sexual assault of strangers into the public discourse, IPSA remains a hidden problem, shrouded in shame and secrecy. IPSA is thus one of the most poorly understood, documented and addressed violations of women’s human rights.

It is also a serious health problem. Studies in the United States have shown that the physical and psychological consequences of sexual abuse by a marriage or intimate partner are similar to or more severe than those which have been documented in studies of sexual violence by strangers. Recall that while a woman who is raped by a stranger and a woman who is raped by an intimate partner both live with the horrible memories, a woman who is raped or sexually abused by her intimate partner lives with her rapist and the constant threat of future sexual abuse.
Although little research has been done on the prevalence of IPSA, it is nonetheless clear from what limited data has been gathered that the numbers of IPSA victims are staggeringly high. In the United States, the best available estimates indicate that 10-14% of women ever married or cohabiting have been raped by the use or threat of physical force at least once by their partners, and many report being raped repeatedly throughout their marriages or intimate partner relationships. In a random sampling of Norwegian gynecological patients, 25% of women who had ever lived with their intimate partners had been physically and/or sexually abused by those partners. In a recent study in the Netherlands, over 25% of married women reported being forced or pressured into unwanted sex by their marital partners.

And a recent study by The Musasa Project in Zimbabwe reported that out of a total of 759 women interviewed, 73% said that they had been made to have sex with their partners against their will. Out of these women, 69 said that they had had unprotected sex with their partner despite knowing that he had a sexually transmitted disease at the time because they were afraid of being beaten or killed if they refused. Finally, the National Collective of Rape Crisis & Related Groups of Aotearoa in New Zealand reported that over the past five years, 36.6% of their clients were sexually abused by their partners/husbands. This rate is particularly significant given that this organization assists all victims of sexual abuse, including abuse by strangers, and does not focus on serving women who are abused by their husbands or intimate partners.

International Study on Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse

Since 1998, the Women’s Rights Network ("WRN"), a human rights organization based at the Wellesley Centers for Women ("Centers"), has been collaborating with researchers at the Centers on an international and cross-cultural project to address the sexual abuse of women by their husbands or other intimate partners. This project seeks to: (1) develop a comprehensive and global understanding of IPSA; (2) build an international consensus on women’s sexual rights and autonomy; (3) identify and share innovative strategies and resources to address IPSA; (4) improve services to victims and interventions with perpetrators; (5) enhance public education and awareness-raising efforts related to IPSA; and (6) promote the creation of other strategies to address IPSA, such as legal advocacy and research studies.

WRN has completed stage one of this project, which consisted of an international literature review as well as international survey of women’s organizations around the world on IPSA. Out of approximately 200 surveys sent by WRN to women’s organizations in a total of 59 countries (random sampling), a total of 51 organizations responded. The respondents were from the following 23 countries: Albania, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, England, India, Israel, Kenya, Korea, Mauritius, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda, Zimbabwe.

The agencies that responded to the survey were diverse and included: domestic violence organizations, sexual assault organizations, general support and crisis centers, community health programs, community education and organizing programs, progressive political organizations, legal advocacy/aid and law reform organizations, research and resource centers, lesbian support organizations, and HIV/AIDS organizations.

The survey consisted of 13 questions, the most substantive of which are summarized below:
  1. How does your agency define IPSA? (terms used, types of acts included)
  2. Does your agency provide servicesspecifically for women who have experienced IPSA?
  3. Are your agency’s staff and volunteers trained to respond specifically to IPSA survivors?
  4. Does your agency routinely ask its clients questions about their experiences of IPSA?
  5. How does your agency’s staff respond to clients who self-identify as IPSA survivors?
  6. Why do you think women might not identify themselves as IPSA survivors?
  7. Does your agency use any other strategies not yet mentioned to address IPSA specifically?
  8. Do you think that your agency responds effectively to the needs of IPSA survivors?
The specific objectives of the survey were to:
identify organizations around the world that are concerned about IPSA;
learn about any work that is being done on IPSA;
learn about how advocates are thinking about and approaching IPSA in their work;
document the range of definitions of IPSA currently in use;
understand why IPSA occurs;
uncover the cultural or social barriers to addressing IPSA effectively;
learn about gaps in service and other strategies; and
learn about advocates’ priority concerns and needs with regard to IPSA.
All of these objectives were achieved. WRN’s survey findings teach us several important points about IPSA, many of which are confirmed in the international literature on this topic:
IPSA is a global violation of women’s human rights that occurs across many different cultures;
There is a particularly strong web of silence surrounding IPSA, created by a combination of patriarchy, tradition, culture and religion;
Many of the countries represented by respondents lack laws or other effective legal means to respond to IPSA;
The vast majority of respondents do not focus on IPSA as a separate or specialized issue in their work;
The majority of respondents reported either that their organizations are not able to respond effectively to the needs of IPSA victims/survivors, or respond effectively only given certain economic, cultural, legal and other constraints;
IPSA differs from other forms of inter-personal violence in ways that suggest a targeted response by service providers, communities and governments; and
A small number of respondents reported innovative and targeted approaches to IPSA that can serve as models for other organizations.
A complete report on WRN’s international survey and literature review on intimate partner sexual abuse is available through the Publications Department at the Wellesley Centers for Women at +781-283-2510. Order #WCW2. Cost: $12 including shipping & handling.

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