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Women’s Equality Day: Effect of gender-based violence on women’s mental health

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), across the world, every one in three women is likely to have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse during her lifetime. Violence against women undermines their dignity, security, autonomy and health. While both men and women can be victims of physical, emotional or verbal attacks, it has been widely acknowledged that as a result of unequal distribution of power in the society and gender discrimination, girls and women suffer more serious consequences. A persistent and universal problem across cultures and social groups, violence against women is the most pervasive yet least recognized violation of human rights.

Gender-based violence (GBV) includes physical, sexual and psychological violence and can occur both publicly and privately. Seriously affecting all aspects of a woman’s health, including mental, physical, sexual, reproductive and behavioral, GBV can have immediate, acute, chronic and long-lasting health consequences that may persist long after the violence has stopped.

Types of GBV against women include, but is not limited to, psychological abuse, overt physical abuse, deprivation of resources needed for a woman’s physical and psychological needs, and treatment of women as commodities. An important determinant of mental health, the gender-specific risk factors that increase the probability of women experiencing a mental health problem include socioeconomic disadvantage, lower status of women, GBV, income inequality, and the overburden of caring responsibilities.

Mental health consequences of GBV

While physical injuries are most visible and at times even fatal, often invisible and untreated are the long-term mental health consequences of GBV. The psychological wounds of GBV negatively affect a woman’s mental health. Additionally, women who suffer repeated GBV are more prone to stress-related injuries, isolation, substance abuse disorders (SUD) including increased use of drugs and alcohol, and mental illnesses including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies. While the victims may appear to have recovered, they may develop severe symptoms, in response, years later.

Violence and abuse often affect a women’s relationship, her community connections, her financial stability and even her employment prospects. Flashbacks of traumatic events, once over, are triggered by images, sounds and memories, creating a fight, freeze or flight response, among its victims. Lack of understanding and validation of the victim’s experience of violence often contributes to the woman’s trauma and isolates her from her friends, family and community, further contributing to the feelings of anxiety and depression.

Studies associate GBV with higher rates of mental health disorders

According to an Australian research, women who underwent the four most common types of GBV, such as stalking, sexual assault, rape and intimate partner violence, were strongly associated with higher rates of mental health disorders, physical and mental disability and dysfunction, and impaired quality of life. Further, women who experienced one form of GBV were more likely to experience the other forms during their lifetimes. The research also associated GBV with the occurrence of three broad classes of lifetime mental health illnesses, including generalized anxiety disorders (GAD), mood disorders and substance use disorders (SUD), with women with the greatest exposure to GBV experiencing the highest rates of these disorders.

According to a recent research, as compared to men, women are twice more likely to experience PTSD. Women, during the study, reported a threefold higher level of exposure to GBV and twice the prevalence of lifetime PTSD. The researchers observed that the network trauma and GBV may contribute to their gender difference in PTSD occurrence.

In 1971, the United States Congress designated Aug. 26 as the Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. A major landmark in the women’s rights movement in the U.S., the day also calls attention to women’s rights and their continuing efforts towards full equality in all sectors.

Road to recovery

Though inequality and gender stereotypes are harmful to the mental health of women, not addressing these issues can prove to be debilitating. A solution-focused approach, in a safe, compassionate and supportive environment, not only assists women in their recovery from GBV but also empowers them to make the necessary changes to promote recovery and build resilience. Celebrating womanhood and respecting their special needs, the women’s only facility of Sovereign Health in Chandler, Arizona, provides comprehensive evaluations and integrated treatment. We offer trauma-specific treatment that addresses the consequences of victimization and promotes healing and recovery.

For more information about our alumni services and recovery management program and how you can benefit from it, call our 24/7 helpline 866-501-9425.

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