Sexual violence can affect women’s health for life and lead to serious illness

Sexual violence against women is bad enough, but who would have thought it’s a cause of long-term illness?

So while women may survive the experience of sexual violence, the ­ongoing effects may emerge later in the form of illnesses like heart disease.

No one, it seems, had considered tackling this long-term fallout until Rebecca B Lawn and colleagues from Harvard University in the US and the Massachusetts General Hospital put two and two together.

The statistics are truly shocking. One in three women worldwide report violence committed either by a male partner (psychological, physical, sexual) or non-partner.

Until now researchers had focused on violence and its link with mental health. But there are links to much more – conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease and cervical cancer.

Sexual assault has been linked to an increased risk of furring up of the arteries, chronic sleep disorders, and stroke-inducing blood vessel disease in the brain.

We can’t ignore it. Male violence puts women at risk of the leading causes of death such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and dementia.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is common with as many as four out of five women globally experiencing it.

Workplace sexual harassment is particularly bad for women’s health with increased risk of conditions such as high blood pressure. High blood pressure is at the root of many other illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and stroke. This American report calls for the impact of all forms of violence against women to be ­investigated, including verbal or psychological violence.

In light of this we can’t ignore the sexual harassment of young girls in schools and of women and girls online.

Attitudes need to change. For example, neither the British Heart Foundation website or the American Heart Association guidelines mention violence as a contributor to the ­development of ­cardiovascular disease among women. Why not?

Similarly, the NHS fails to highlight the link between a woman suffering violence and their long-term health.

A crucial first step would be to ­recognise the prevalence of violence experienced by women and girls.

A clear second step would be to understand and address the ­implications of this epidemic for their long-term physical health.

A third step would be long-term research, healthcare, and policy change tying in the experience of violence with the effect on future health.