Why is interpersonal violence a health and human rights issue?
According to the World Health Organization, interpersonal violence “refers to violence between individuals, and is subdivided into family and intimate partner violence and community violence. The former category includes child maltreatment; intimate partner violence; and elder abuse, while the latter is broken down into acquaintance and stranger violence and includes youth violence; assault by strangers; violence related to property crimes; and violence in workplaces and other institutions.”
The WHO states that interpersonal violence is a major public health problem worldwide. Each year, millions of people die as the result of injuries due to violence. Many more survive their injuries, but live with a permanent disability. Interpersonal violence can take several forms: physical, emotional, sexual, and economic, and also includes acts like threats, stalking/surveillance, isolation and intimidation.
Although women are more likely to be targeted, anyone can be a victim of interpersonal violence, including those in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities, men, children, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. Interpersonal violence is associated with numerous long-term health effects, both physical and mental, and increased use of health-care services.. Therefore, the WHO maintains it is crucial to identify victims of interpersonal violence and provide effective care and support, which are critical for protecting health and breaking cycles of violence from one generation to the next.
What are the relevant global sources?
As explained by the Australian Human Rights Commission, freedom from violence (whether sexual, mental, emotional, financial or physical) is a fundamental human right. The right to protection from violence and to security and liberty of person is recognized in the major human rights agreements, including the:
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
- Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
What can health workers do?
Health workers have an important role to play in the prevention and early intervention of violence. In its briefing for health workers, the WHO has recommended the following:
- The implementation of violence education programmes for health workers so they are equipped with the knowledge needed to effectively identify and support victims.
- Health workers can work with their facilities to implement screening tools to identify victims of intimate partner violence and elder abuse, which will increase victims’ chances of obtaining support. When possible, the WHO encourages the use of multi-agency risk assessment systems, which enable staff in a range of services to identify high-risk victims of intimate partner violence and better plan a support strategy.
- The provision of advocacy support programmes, which offer services such as advice, counselling, safety planning and referral to other agencies. According to the WHO, these support programmes can increase victims’ safety behaviours and reduce further harm. In particular, sexual assault nurse examiner programmes have proven to be effective in improving victim care and support and facilitating prosecution of perpetrators.
- The availability of helplines, which can help decrease callers’ distress and sense of hopelessness.
- The WHO also points out that some psychosocial interventions (e.g., trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy) have been found to reduce mental health problems, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, associated with violence.
This page was written by Tara Ornstein in January 2018.
 World Health Organization. Violence and Injury Prevention. Geneva, 2014.
 Elliott, Lorrie. Interpersonal Violence: Improving Victim Recognition and Treatment. Journal of General Internal Medicine 18.10 (2003): 871-872. PMC.
 World Health Organization. Reducing violence through victim identification, care and support programmes. Geneva, 2009.
 Australian Human Rights Commission. Why is domestic violence a human rights issue? Sydney, 2017.