“Violence against women and girls” includes a variety of crime types such as domestic abuse, harassment and domestic homicide. It is a topic of even greater public interest following several high-profile cases.
These experiences are sometimes hidden and are not limited to physical violence including abusive treatment such as coercive and controlling behaviour or exploitation. Violence against women and girls can have profound long-term effects on survivors and people close to them.
Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is an umbrella term used to cover a wide range of abuses against women and girls such as domestic homicide, domestic abuse, sexual assault, abuse experienced as a child, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and harassment in work and public life. While men and boys also suffer from many of these forms of abuse, they disproportionately affect women.
VAWG is a term adopted from the United Nations 1993 declaration that includes “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life".
In the year ending March 2020, the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse, around 7% of the female population. The crime survey also estimated that 3% of women aged 16 to 74 years in England and Wales experienced sexual assault (including attempts) and 5% experienced stalking. These trends have remained similar over the last 10 years.
There are other types of abuse that are hidden from society and are particularly hard to measure, such as female genital mutilation (FGM). Between April 2020 and March 2021, there were 5,395 women and girls who had attendances at NHS trusts or GPs in England where FGM was identified.
Abuse often starts early in life. In the year ending March 2019, the crime survey estimated 25% of women aged 18 to 74 years, around 5.1 million women, had experienced some form of abuse before the age of 16 years.
Other crimes, such as harassment, often happen in public. In June 2021, the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey showed that around a third (32%) of women over the age of 16 years in Great Britain had experienced at least one form of harassment in the last 12 months. Women aged 16 to 34 years were more than twice as likely (65%) to have experienced harassment in the last year than women aged 35 years and over.
The range and prevalence of these crimes is widespread, with many women and girls living with the after-effects.
Of women who were victims of rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years, the crime survey, year ending March 2017 and year ending March 2020 combined estimated 63% reported mental or emotional problems and 10% reported that they had tried to kill themselves as a result. In addition, 21% reported taking time off work and 5% reported losing their job or giving up work.
The nature of domestic abuse can lead to significant impacts on an individual’s living situation. The 2019 to 2020 Statutory Homelessness Annual Report showed that around 1 in 11 households in England (8.7%) who were homeless or threatened with homelessness recorded domestic abuse as the main reason. And the charity St Mungo's (PDF, 954KB) reported that 35% of women they worked with who had slept rough left home to escape violence.
While often a lower level of physical harm, harassment can still have an impact on women’s everyday lives. In June 2021, the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey showed that 89% of women in Great Britain who had experienced harassment said they felt ”very or fairly unsafe” walking on their own after dark in a park or other open space.
Impacts on individuals are complex and often long lasting. The crime survey showed that 57% of women who had experienced abuse before the age of 16 years, also experienced domestic abuse later in life. In comparison, 17% of women who did not experience abuse before the age of 16 years experienced domestic abuse later in life.
Many of these crimes remain hidden. According to the crime survey, 1 in 4 women (25%) who were victims of rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) before the age of 16 years told someone about the abuse at the time. More than half (56%) gave embarrassment as a reason for not telling someone, and just under half (48%) said they did not think anyone would believe them.
People seek support in different ways. The crime survey shows that for women who had experienced partner abuse in the last year, 81% had chosen to tell someone. They were most likely to tell someone they knew personally about the abuse, with 53% of women telling a friend or neighbour, 21% telling a health professional and 18% contacting the police.
The lower percentage of women reporting abuse to the police highlights how many crimes do not enter the criminal justice system. In the year ending June 2021, 60% of police recorded crimes described as “rape of a female aged 16 years and over” were closed as a result of “evidential difficulties”. These include cases where the police were unable to build a strong enough case for the offence to continue in the criminal justice system, or the victim or suspect could not be traced. These issues, including improving support for victims, are discussed in the government’s rape review report.
Emergency accommodation, counselling, legal and personal support can be transformative for women and girls who have experienced or are experiencing abuse.
A domestic abuse refuge service provides emergency temporary accommodation for victims. Our Domestic abuse victim services, England and Wales: November 2021 article shows there are insufficient bed spaces to meet demand.
In the year ending March 2019, 13,787 counselling sessions were delivered by the charity Childline to girls in the UK for abuse-related concerns, a decrease of 9% since the year ending March 2015. This fall was partly because more sessions were taking place online, which takes longer than over the phone, and also because counselling sessions were taking place later in the day when fewer volunteers were available.
Our research has also looked at evidence on prevention. An important area of prevention is through understanding attitudes towards violence against women and girls.
An OFSTED report published in 2021 investigated sexual abuse in schools. It found nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens “a lot or sometimes” to them or their peers.
Children and young people said sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become “commonplace”. For example, the OFSTED report also found that 92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.
A 2017 survey on girls’ attitudes (PDF, 4.68MB) found a quarter of young women (aged 18 to 21 years) believed sexting is normal in a relationship, and 16% said they had felt pressure to send a nude picture.
We also found evidence on attitudes towards physical violence, albeit now out of date. The “From Boys to Men (PDF, 1.12MB)” project in 2013 found that half (49%) of boys and a third (33%) of girls aged 13 to 14 years thought hitting would be OK in a relationship in at least one of 12 scenarios presented to them. Specifically, 10% of boys and 7% of girls thought it was OK for a man to hit his partner or wife if she had cheated on him. We are working with partners to understand how best to update this information.
This article is part of a wider project to bring together a breadth of evidence on Violence against Women and Girls. Our data landscape provides links to evidence and statistics from across government, support agencies, charities and academics. It includes evidence available on victims or survivors, perpetrators, services and prevention.
We are also collaborating with others to fill some of the evidence gaps highlighted by this work – such as detail of harassment and data available through the health system. Our work to redevelop statistics on domestic abuse from the Crime Survey for England and Wales will also help to improve evidence. If you would like to keep updated with news from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice please sign up to our newsletter.
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse, help is available:
If you feel unsafe call 999 and ask for the police
If you cannot use a voice phone you can text REGISTER to 999 and you will receive a text message which tells you what to do next
Refuge can be called for free 24 hours a day on 0808 200 0247
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)
Women’s Aid offer information and support via a live chat which can be accessed via their website
Welsh Women’s Aid can be called on 0808 801 0800
The Forced Marriage Unit can be contacted on 020 7008 0151
Mind can be called on 0300 123 3393 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rape Crisis can be called on 0808 802 9999
The National Stalking Helpline can be called on 0808 802 0300 (run by Suzy Lamplugh Trust)
Samaritans can be called on 116 123 or emailed at email@example.com
The Survivors Trust can be called on 0808 801 0818
Victim Support can be called on 0808 168 9111
Respect provide an advice line for male victims of domestic abuse it can be called on 0808 8010327
Respect also offers a helpline for people who are worried they may be perpetrating domestic violence it can be called on 0808 802 4040