by Theresa Sommers

On Friday, 12 September 2014 the world heard of the verdict in the trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, who was found guilty of “culpable homicide,” but not murder, in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013.  When the story first broke, it captivated media attention and highlighted the truly staggering situation of violence against women in South Africa. 

Much has been written about the problem of violence against women in South Africa, with 40-50% of women in the country reporting that they experienced violence from an intimate partner. The country also has the dubious distinction of being known as the ‘Rape Capital of the World,’ with a 2009 study finding that one in four men had admitted to perpetrating rape. While these statistics are shocking, South Africa is not an anomaly.

Violence against women is a significant issue for global health. Recent estimates from the World Health Organization proclaim that 30% of women globally have reported physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, while 35% have reported violence from a non-partner. That is one in three women. One in three. And that is just women who report. A growing body of research is showing the ways in which these experiences of violence lead to long-term physical and mental health consequences for women, including HIV, gynecological problems, and depression.

Researchers from the CPDD’s Global Health and Development section are working on this issue, through our research and work with nurses in the public hospitals in Johannesburg, South Africa. In partnership with colleagues at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, we are considering the role of the health system as an enabler of women’s health through addressing intimate partner violence seen in patients.

For those who have not experienced violence, or do not know someone who has experienced violence, it can be easy to feel disassociated from these statistics. We read stories about violence against women in South Africa or India, Afghanistan or Nicaragua, and reassure ourselves that this horrible phenomenon is happening “over there” or “to other people.”

Yet, violence against women is more than just a global health problem – it’s a global health epidemic according to the World Health Organization. As such, we need to realize that this is not just a problem for ‘someone else’ who lives across the world, in a different community. It’s our problem too. Indeed, one of the key features of the emerging field of global health is that it focuses on health issues affecting communities around the world. Global does not mean out there, other places, other communities – global means all of us.

For further proof that this issue is not just “out there,” those of us in the United States just have to look to the recent national conversation around American football player Ray Rice. To recap, Rice was recently released from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the National Football League (NFL) following the public release of footage showing Mr. Rice physically attacking his then-girlfriend to the point of rendering her unconscious. Much of the media discussion now centers on the handling of the incident by the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell. And now three other players have been suspended due to domestic abuse allegations.

While the media attention placed on these two cases has thrust the issue into national, and even international, discourse – a good thing, for sure – we must all be vigilant against developing assumptions about who perpetrates violence and who is, and can be, a victim. To most of us, Olympians and professional athletes often seem like they live in a different world. The challenge for all of us is to make sure that these incidents do not support the development of just another conceptual place “out there, in another world” where violence against women occurs.

If you or someone you love is experiencing violence, help is out there. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers help 24-hours a day. Additional resources can be found at If you are outside the United States, this clearinghouse offers links to local resources around the world.

Theresa Sommers is a PhD student in the the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston and a center fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development. Her research focuses on issues of Global Health, especially health and migration in Southern Africa, independent child migration, and adolescent and child health.