Some Data on Global Domestic Violence
A study of 34 countries finds surprisingly low levels of domestic violence.
Posted Jun 23, 2019
This post was written by Jennifer S. Deren, Nazia Khan, and Lawrence T. White[i]
According to the National Coalition Against Dating Violence, approximately 20 people are abused by an intimate partner every minute in the United States. Assuming the numbers are accurate, how do they compare with rates of domestic violence in other countries?
If statements made by public figures are any indication, most Americans feel great empathy for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, but how do Americans compare with people in other countries?
In 2003, health researcher Madhabika Nayak and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 college students in India, Japan, Kuwait, and the United States. Their study examined men’s and women’s attitudes toward sexual and physical violence against women. Nayak and her team expected to find different attitudes in the four countries because India, Japan, Kuwait, and the United States differ from each other in terms of economic development and historical, political, and religious traditions.
Among all male respondents, men in the United States reported the most positive attitudes (more empathy and less victim-blaming), followed by men in Japan and India. Men in Kuwait reported the least positive attitudes toward victims.
The same national pattern was observed among female respondents. Women in the United States reported the most positive attitudes toward female victims of sexual and physical violence, followed by women in Japan and India. Women in Kuwait were the least empathetic and most likely to blame the victim.
In every country except Kuwait, women reported more positive attitudes toward victims than men did. (In Kuwait, men and women reported equally unfavorable attitudes.)
The study also found that men, regardless of their nationality, were more likely than women to endorse beliefs about rape and spousal violence that blame the victim. For example, men were more likely to believe that “many women who are raped are flirtatious” and “many women falsely report a rape for attention.”
Nayak and her colleagues concluded that “both gender and nationality are important influences on an individual’s attitudes toward violence against women” (Nayak et al., 2003, p. 339). They also proposed that the more negative attitudes and beliefs in India, Japan, and Kuwait are consistent with the fact that India, Japan, and especially Kuwait have more hierarchical power structures and less gender equality than the United States. Similarly, women in India, Japan, and especially Kuwait have less freedom than men in terms of social mobility and working outside the home. They also face far more restrictive norms than men do regarding sexual behavior.
But what about rates of domestic violence? In 2017, German psychologist Christine Ebbeler and her colleagues examined the frequency and magnitude of physical aggression among married partners by surveying more than 8,000 individuals in 34 countries. Respondents came from all walks of life and ranged in age from 18 to 91.[ii]
In all 34 countries, people reported (confidentially) very low levels of physical aggression and violence in their marriages. On a 7-point scale ranging from 0 = never to 6 = more than 20 times in the past year, the average response across all nations was 0.23. Respondents in Norway, Israel, New Zealand, and Sweden reported the lowest frequencies of domestic violence (less than .07 on the scale), while respondents in Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore reported the highest frequencies of domestic violence (about .40 or .50 on the scale).
Not surprisingly, men were more likely than women to report they had acted aggressively toward their partner. What surprised us was that the global difference between men and women was tiny—less than one-twentieth of a point on the 7-point scale. In some countries—Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Brazil, for example—the difference between men and women was larger but still small in an absolute sense.
In fact, Ebbeler and her team found that, across all 34 nations, 69% of the people surveyed reported no physical aggression at all in their marriage, although the percentage varied across countries. In the Netherlands, for example, 83% of married persons reported no domestic violence, while just 45% of married persons in the Philippines reported no domestic violence.
In their thorough analysis, Ebbeler and her colleagues discovered that the frequency and intensity of domestic violence in a country was predicted by that country’s standing on several cultural dimensions.
Specifically, levels of domestic violence were higher in societies that were collectivistic and marked by high power distance.[iii] Levels of domestic violence were also higher in countries with significant gender disparities revolving around health, empowerment, and labor market participation. Finally, levels of domestic violence were higher in countries that were less well developed economically, as these countries also show higher levels of gender inequality.
With the recent #MeToo movement shedding light on the prevalence of sexual assaults in the United States and elsewhere, it’s easy to presume that domestic violence is also a widespread problem around the world. Even one victim of domestic violence is one victim too many, but the study of 34 countries by Christine Ebbeler and her team points to a hopeful conclusion: Around the world, most married couples experience no physical aggression at all in their relationship. When domestic violence does occur, it occurs very infrequently, especially in places that are economically developed and marked by gender equality. The United States is one such place.
[i] Jennifer Deren and Nazia Khan are Psychology students at Elmhurst College in Illinois (USA). Lawrence White is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Beloit College in Wisconsin (USA).
[ii] Unfortunately, the national samples were not truly representative, especially in countries with low literacy rates like Bangladesh and India. The survey asked about sensitive issues, so respondents had to complete the survey on their own.
[iii] Power distance refers to whether power in a society is distributed equally or unequally. It also refers to whether persons with less power accept or reject the unequal distribution of power.
Ebbeler, C., Grau, I., & Banse, R. (2017). Cultural and individual factors determine physical aggression between married partners: Evidence from 34 countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48 (7), 1098–1118.
Nayak, M. B., Byrne, C. A., Martin, M. K., & Abraham, A. G. (2003). Attitudes toward violence against women: A cross-nation study. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 49 (7–8), 333–342.