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Study paints grim picture of worldwide risk of sexual assault for women

Participants in the Slutwalk gather to demonstrate against sexual assault and a culture they say enables it at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, May 25, 2012. The protest started the previous year after a Toronto police officer told a group of York students that if they don't want to be raped they shouldn't dress like sluts.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A comprehensive new study has found that an estimated one in 14 women around is sexually assaulted by someone other than her partner – with real numbers likely higher, given that many victims fail to report the crimes out of shame or fear.

The research, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found that 7.2 per cent of women 15 years of age and older report being sexually assaulted by someone other than an intimate partner at least once in their lives. In Canada and the United States, that number jumps to 13 per cent. And nearly all countries – including Canada – aren't doing enough to compile data on sexual violence by different predators.

Sexual-assault rates are highest in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (21 per cent), Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (17.4 per cent) and in the Australasian countries of New Zealand and Australia (16.4 per cent), says study co-author Naeemah Abrahams with the South African Medical Research Council in Cape Town. Countries such as Turkey (4.5 per cent) and India and Bangladesh (3.3 per cent) had the lowest incidence.

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"Sexual violence is a common experience for women worldwide," concludes Prof. Abrahams, who pored over studies conducted in 56 countries over a period of 13 years, with assistance from colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as the World Health Organization. "In some regions, it's endemic."

The research highlights the need for countries to start aggressively implementing their own population-based data on the levels of sexual violence by different predators. Hard data is desperately needed, Prof. Abrahams says, so health-care professionals can get a better grasp on the magnitude of the problem to put in place improved prevention interventions, as well as more comprehensive services to treat victims of sexual assault.

Sandra Diaz, vice-president of communications at the Canadian Women's Foundation, echoed Prof. Abrahams' plea for governments to get more aggressive on compiling data on domestic and sexual violence in Canada.

"We do not have our own population-based data and it's something we desperately need," Ms. Diaz says. "The last seminal study on domestic violence in Canada was in 1993. The government simply is not investing in this kind of research. It's a huge challenge to make it a priority."

A 2013 study by the Canadian Women's Foundation found that 67 per cent of Canadians know a woman who has been physically or sexually abused. "This research doesn't replace incidence data, but it does give us a sense of the magnitude of the epidemic in Canada," says Ms. Diaz, who adds that less than 10 per cent of sexual assaults in Canada are reported. "They don't report because of the victim-blaming culture, and out of shame and fear."

Also last year, Ms. Diaz says, the foundation did a public-opinion poll on Canadians' attitudes toward sexual and domestic violence and found that 19 per cent of Canadians believe a woman encouraged or provoked sexual assault when she was drunk, while 11 per cent believe she encouraged or provoked sexual assault by wearing a short skirt.

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