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Today, the World Health Organization released the first global estimate of violence against women. The figures are high all over the world. And as NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, the violence has serious implications for women's health in ways that aren't always apparent.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: According to the new report, about one in three women aged 15 and above has been physically abused or raped. And over 85 percent of those women were attacked by their own partners.

KAREN DEVRIES: I think this is a shockingly high figure.

CHATTERJEE: Karen Devries is at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and contributed to the WHO report. She's also the author of a paper on domestic violence in the latest issue of the journal Science. She says not only does domestic violence physically injure women, it can also lead to death.

DEVRIES: Thirty-eight percent of all women who were murdered were actually murdered by their intimate partners.

CHATTERJEE: She says victims of domestic violence are also at a greater risk of developing a range of health problems: Depression, alcoholism and, in some places, even AIDS. And these health effects, Devries says, may carry over into the next generation.

DEVRIES: We see that women who've experienced partner violence have a greater chance of having a low birth-weight baby.

CHATTERJEE: The report is the first comprehensive look at levels of sexual and domestic abuse around the globe. Claudia Garcia-Moreno is a physician with the World Health Organization and one of the lead authors of the report.

DR. CLAUDIA GARCIA-MORENO: When we look at all this data together, what it flags is that this is a tremendous problem.

CHATTERJEE: She admits that some of the findings may even underestimate the prevalence of violence against women. But she says the report goes well beyond just presenting data.

GARCIA-MORENO: We are releasing guidelines for health care providers, doctors, nurses midwives.

CHATTERJEE: So they're better prepared to identify victims of domestic violence.

GARCIA-MORENO: When and how to ask about domestic violence, how to respond appropriately to disclosure of violence.

CHATTERJEE: There's a strong stigma attached to sexual violence, and most victims don't reveal that they were abused. But they do access regular health care facilities so, Garcia-Moreno says, doctors and nurses must be prepared to step in and help.

GARCIA-MORENO: We want to see these issues integrated into the curriculum on the basic training of doctors and nurses.

CHATTERJEE: The report is being well received by experts. Anita Raj directs the Center on Gender Equities and Global Public Health at the University of California, San Diego. She welcomes the report, especially the guidelines for health workers.

DR. ANITA RAJ: A lot of health providers don't have training on how to do assessments and screen to see if such violence has occurred.

CHATTERJEE: And she says they often feel helpless when they do confront cases of sexual or domestic violence.

RAJ: I think there's a lot of providers that worry, OK now what am I going to do?

CHATTERJEE: Raj says the new report is full of detailed advice and information about resources. Sohaila Abdulali is with the Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-profit that works on public health and sexual violence in South Africa. She agrees that the new report has the potential to make a big difference. But she says it could have gone further.

SOHAILA ABDULALI: There's only one vague mention of social support.

CHATTERJEE: And Abdulali knows just how important social support is. She was raped herself as a teenager. And for years, she worked with victims of sexual violence at a rape clinic in Boston.

RAJ: Medical intervention is great. But really, if somebody comes in to you for support, no matter what you give her, it can't make up for what she could get from her own community.

CHATTERJEE: She says most victims' families aren't supportive of them. In fact, they often blame the victim. Even one trustworthy person to talk to, Abdulali says, can take a victim a long way on the road to recovery. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

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