19 minute read

Spouse Abuse


PREVALENCE Orsolya Magyar


Over the past two decades, violence by an intimate partner has become identified throughout the world as a serious physical and mental health concern. Spouse abuse, in particular, was recognized, at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 as a human rights concern worldwide.

Terms and Definitions

Various terms are used to characterize the violence between intimate partners. For example terms such as spouse abuse, domestic violence, family violence, partner violence, intimate partner abuse, and battering are popular but they do not differentiate between men and women (Gelles 1995). These terms imply that men are as likely as women to be victims of spouse abuse and suggest that women and men initiate assaults on their partners at approximately the same rate (Straus and Gelles 1986). And roughly equivalent victimization rates have been found for married (e.g., Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1986) and dating (e.g., White and Koss 1991) couples.

However, numerous other sources indicate that women are far more likely than men to be victimized. For example, a National Crime Victimization Survey in the United States (Bachman 1994) found that women were ten times more likely to be injured by their male partners than vice versa. The National Violence Against Women Survey (Tjaden and Thoennes 2001) found that 20.4 percent of women, as opposed to only 7 percent of men, were physically assaulted by their intimate partner at some point in their relationship; thus, women were almost three times more likely to report being victimized by their husband or boyfriend. This type of information supports the shift from gender-neutral terms to terms such as violence toward women, woman abuse, wife abuse, or violence against wives (Gelles 1995).

In studying wife abuse, violence toward women is typically defined in one of three ways: (1) overall prevalence, referring to the percentage of women who have ever been physically assaulted by a partner in an intimate relationship; (2) overall twelve-month prevalence, referring to the percentage of women who have been physically assaulted by a partner in an intimate relationship during the previous twelve months; and (3) current prevalence, referring to the percentage of women who are currently being physically assaulted by a partner in an intimate relationship.

Early definitions of spouse abuse referred only to the physical injury a husband perpetrated against his wife (Gelles 1974; Martin 1976). More recent research broadened this definition to include sexual abuse, marital rape, emotional or psychological abuse, and coercion. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women presently defines domestic violence as "any act of gender based violence that results 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 private life" (Fikree and Bhatti 1999).


Given the fact that the most common victims of spouse abuse are wives, in the late twentieth century researchers began to study the prevalence of wife abuse around the world (Campbell 1992). The World Health Organization, though the Department for Injuries and Violence Prevention, created a Violence Against Women database. This database is one of the few current sources for international spouse abuse statistics. It notes that comparisons between studies need to be undertaken cautiously because of differences in definitions, samples and data collection techniques. In addition, variability in reporting violence by the subjects in the studies needs to be considered, due to fear, embarrassment, self-blame, or cultural norms regarding the acceptability of violence. Nevertheless, available studies indicate that between 20 and 50 percent of women in various populations around the world have experienced spouse abuse at some point in their lives (Heise et al. 1994; World Health Organization 2002). These figures support that the physical abuse of women by their intimate partners is indeed a serious international problem.

North America. The 1985 National Family Violence Survey in the United States and a 1987 study of Alberta, Canada, residents produced similar rates of wife abuse; 11.3 percent of U.S. women (Straus and Gelles 1986) and 11.2 percent of Canadian women (Kennedy and Dutton 1989) were reported to be the victims of spouse abuse in a twelve-month period. More recent findings, however, from the National Violence Against Women Survey (World Health Organization 2002) show twelve-month rates of 1.3 percent (and an overall prevalence rate of 22.1%), whereas a recent report by Statistics Canada (Trainor and Mihorean 2001) reported that both the 1993 Violence Against Women Survey and the 1999 General Social Survey found twelve-month wife abuse rates of 3 percent. The declines in rates of domestic violence in North America may be the result of many factors, including an expansion of the number of resources and services offered to abused women (e.g., shelters), more reporting of the abuse, mandatory arrest laws for men who beat their wives, and better training for police officers and attorneys appointed by the crown; in addition, new treatment programs for men who assault women, and the slowly increasing status of women, both socially and financially, may be contributing to a reduction of this problem (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2001). These interventions are, unfortunately, not available or implemented in many parts of the world, and the high estimates for prevalence rates of spouse abuse around the world reflect lack in services. However, many countries around the world have domestic violence rates similar to North America's, pointing out, perhaps, that there may be other factors involved in this problem.

Central/South America. In Central and South America, research suggests that wife abuse is a significant problem. In Mexico, spouse abuse rates varied from 27 to 40 percent (World Health Organization 2002). A national study of wife abuse in Puerto Rico between 1993 and 1996 noted lifetime prevalence rates of 19.3 percent (World Health Organization 2002). Thirty percent of a Peruvian sample of middle- and low-income women in 1997 reported physical abuse within the past year (World Health Organization 2002), and 22.5 percent of the participants in a study of domestic violence in Santiago, Chile, reported being assaulted in the year preceding the study (World Health Organization 2002). In Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua, 52 percent of women reported physical abuse from their partner at some point in their lives, with 27 percent being the victim of it during the year before the study (Ellsberg 1999).

Europe. Spouse abuse statistics for European countries are difficult to find. This is unfortunate because the few studies investigating this problem in Europe indicate that the rates of domestic violence are comparable or higher than those found in North America. The largest English survey of men's reports of assaulting their intimate partners found the overall prevalence rate to be over 7 percent (Farrington 1994). A cross-sectional survey of women in Ireland found that 39 percent of women who had ever been in a relationship had in fact experienced spouse abuse (Bradley et al. 2002).

A study of Norwegian women residing in Trondheim, Norway, found that 18 percent had experienced domestic violence at some point in a relationship (Schei and Bakketeig 1989). Similarly, within a Dutch sample, 20.8 percent of the women had, at some point in their lives, experienced physical (and/or sexual) violence by their partner (Romkens 1997). In Switzerland, according to a two-year study from 1994 to 1996, overall prevalence rates for wife abuse are 12.6 percent, whereas twelve-month prevalence rates are 6.3 percent (World Health Organization 2002).

Slightly more than 4 percent of Spanish women over the age of eighteen are reported by the Women's Institute—a women's rights organization—to suffer from daily physical assaults from their husbands (Bosch 2001). Eastern Turkey has perhaps the highest reported prevalence rates in all of Europe; in East and Southeast Anatolia, Turkey, the lifetime prevalence rate of spouse abuse is estimated to be an astonishing 57.9 percent (World Health Organization 2002).

Africa. Prevalence rates of wife abuse are high in Africa, even though the many government organizations have promised to promote the full and equal role of women in society. Domestic violence in Egypt remains a significant social problem (Refaat et al. 2001). In the Meskanena Woreda region of Ethiopia, 45 percent of women were estimated to have been victimized by an intimate partner, and 10 percent had been victimized in the twelve months preceding the study (World Health Organization 2002). Odujinrin (1993) reports that wife beating has a prevalence rate of 31.4 percent in Nigeria. In the Kisii District of Kenya, the prevalence of physical abuse within current relationships appears to be 42 percent (World Health Organization 2002). A twelve-month prevalence rate of wife abuse for Kigali, Rwanda, in 1990 was 21 percent (World Health Organization 2002). 40.4 percent of Uganda's women residing in the Lira and Masaka Districts report being abused by a current husband or boyfriend (World Health Organization 2002). In addition, research has documented that domestic violence is pervasive in South Africa despite government efforts to reduce its prevalence (Kim and Mmatshilo 2002).

Asia. The investigations of domestic violence in Asian countries can be compared only indirectly to those of African nations. Both countries have serious problems with spouse abuse that may covertly be maintaining, as well as definitely emphasizing, the lesser status of women in these developing countries. An estimate of the prevalence of domestic violence in Chinese families living in Hong Kong, through the unique data collection technique of children's recall of their parents' behavior, is 14 percent (Tang 1994). This rate is similar to North American estimates of the prevalence of wife abuse; however, a nationwide survey in Japan found that 58.7 percent of the women respondents experienced physical abuse (Yoshihama and Sorenson 1994). In the year preceding a National Study in the Republic of Korea in 1989, 37.5 percent of the respondents had been physically assaulted by their husband or boyfriend (World Health Organization 2002). Twenty percent of a sample of husbands in Bangkok, Thailand, revealed that they had slapped, hit, or kicked their wife one or more times during their marriage (Hoffman, Demo, and Edwards 1994). An examination of domestic violence in the Jullender district of Punjab found that 75 percent of lower-caste men reported physically abusing their wives, and 22 percent of the higher-caste men also reported physically assaulting their wives (Mahajan 1990, 1–10). A later survey found that the prevalence of wife abuse reported by men across five districts of Northern India between 1995 and 1996 was between 18 percent and 45 percent (Martin et al. 1999). Researchers assessing spouse abuse among women attending health centers in Karachi, Pakistan, found that 34 percent reported being physically assaulted at least once by their partner (Fikree and Bhatti 1999). An overall lifetime prevalence rate of 47 percent, and a twelve-month prevalence rate of 19 percent were obtained from ethno-graphic and survey data in rural Bangladesh (Schuler et al. 1996). In Israel, the 1992 estimate of the number of women affected by domestic violence was at least 150,000 per year (Eldeson, Peled, and Eiskovotz 1991). A national study in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994 revealed that 52 percent of women had been physically assaulted in an intimate relationship in the twelve months before the study (World Health Organization 2002). Two studies of the prevalence of domestic violence in Papua New Guinea found lifetime prevalence rates of 67 percent, and 56.1 percent, in rural villages and in Port Moresby, respectively (World Health Organization 2002).

Australia. A study to determine the prevalence of wife abuse in women attending general practitioners in Melbourne, Australia, found that among subjects who were currently involved in a relationship, 6 percent had been kicked, bitten, or punched, 4 percent had either been hit, or their spouse had tried to hit them with an object, 4 percent had been severely beaten, 4 percent had been choked, and 1 percent had been injured by their partner's use of a gun or knife (Mazza, Denner-stein, and Ryan 1996). Another investigation found that, in a small city (population: 80,000) in tropical Australia, spouse abuse was the norm, rather than the exception in relationships (Kahn et al. 1980).

The prevalence rates cited above were based on physical abuse only. In actuality, sexual and psychological abuse are important types of abuse that are found either on their own or in varying degrees with physical abuse. Therefore, it is likely that using a definition of wife abuse that included all three types of these victimizations would have provided higher prevalence rates. Another important concept to acknowledge when examining these prevalence rates is that, as reported by Marvin Kahn and colleagues (1980), domestic violence is seen by many cultures as normal. Thus, the reported rates may underestimate the actual problem because this type of behavior may be accepted, or even embraced, in some cultures. Despite these evident limitations, the available statistics reported by victims or their perpetrators still indicate a severe problem in all the countries examined. North American and European prevalence rates are comparable, as are estimates from South America, Africa, and Asia. Although these prevalence rates are beneficial in helping understand the extent of domestic violence, research urgently needs to address the complex array of social, cultural, and psychological factors that influence these rates in countries around the world.


Bachman, R. (1994). National Crime Victimization Report: Violence Against Women. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Bosch, X. (2001). "Spain's Government Puts Domestic Violence Plan as Top Priority." Lancet 357:1682.

Bradley, F.; Smith, M.; Long, J.; and O'Doud, T. (2002). "Reported Frequency of Domestic Violence: Cross Sectional Survey of Women Attending General Practice." British Medical Journal 324:271–274.

Campbell, J. C. (1992). "Prevention of Wife Battering: Insights from Cultural Analysis." Response to the Victimization of Women and Children 14:18–24.

Eldeson, J. C.; Peled, F.; and Eiskovotz, Z. (1991). "Israel's Response to Battered Women." Violence Update 1(4–5):11.

Ellsberg, M. (1999). "Domestic Violence and Emotional Distress among Nicaraguan Women." American Psychologist 54:30–36.

Farrington, D. P. (1994). "Childhood, Adolescent, and Adult Features of Violent Males." In Aggressive Behaviour: Current Perspectives, ed. L. R. Huesman. New York: Plenum Press.

Fikree, F. F., and Bhatti, L. I. (1999). "Domestic Violence and Health of Pakistani Women." International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 65:195–201.

Gelles, R. J. (1974). The Violent Home. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Gelles, R. J. (1995). "Spouse Abuse and Neglect." In Encyclopedia of Marriage and the Family, ed. D. Levinson. New York: Macmillan.

Heise, L.; Raike, A.; Watts, C.; and Zwi, A. (1994). "Violence Against Women: A Neglected Public Health Issue in Less Developed Countries." Social Science and Medicine 39:1165–1179.

Kahn, M. W., and the Behavioral Health Technician Staff. (1980). "Wife Beating and Cultural Context: Prevalence in an Aboriginal and Islander Community in Northern Australia." American Journal of Community Psychology 8:727–731.

Kennedy, L. W., and Dutton, D. G. (1989). "The Incidence of Wife Assault in Alberta." Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 21:40–54.

Kim, J., and Mmatshilo, M. (2002). "'Women enjoy punishment': Attitudes and Experiences of Gender-Based Violence among the PHC Nurses in Rural South Africa." Social Science and Medicine: 54:1243–1254.

Hoffman, K. L.; Demo, D. H.; and Edwards, J. N. (1994). "Physical Wife Abuse in a Non-Western Society: An Integrated Theoretical Approach." Journal of Marriage and the Family 56:131–146.

Mahajan, A. (1990). "Instigators of Wife Battering." In Violence Against Women, ed. S. Sood. Jaipur, India: Arihanti.

Martin, D. (1976). Battered Wives. San Francisco: Glide.

Martin, L. S.; Ong-Tsui, A.; Maitra, K.; and Marinshaw, R. (1999). "Domestic Violence in Northern India." American Journal of Epidemiology 150:417–426.

Mazza, D.; Dennerstein, L.; and Ryan, V. (1996). "Physical, Sexual, and Emotional Violence Against Women: A General Practice-Based Prevalence Study." Medical Journal of Australia 164:14–17.

Odujinrin, O. (1993). "Wife Battering in Nigeria." International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 41: 159–164.

Refaat, A.; Dandash, K.; Defrawi, M.; and Eyada, M. (2001). "Female Genital Mutilation and Domestic Violence among Egyptian Women." Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 27:593–598.

Romkens, R. (1997). "Prevalence of Wife Abuse in the Netherlands." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 12: 99–125.

Schei, B., and Bakketeig, L. S. (1989). "Gynaecological Impact of Sexual and Physical Abuse by Spouse: A Study of a Random Sample of Norwegian Women." British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 96: 1379–1383.

Schuler, S. R.; Hashemi, S. M.; Riley, A. P.; and Akhter, S. (1996). "Credit Programs, Patriarchy, and Men's Violence against Women in Rural Bangladesh." Social Science and Medicine 43:1729–1742.

Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J. (1986). "Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys." Journal of Marriage and the Family 48:465–479.

Straus, M. A.; Gelles, R. J.; and Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors: Physical Violence in the American Family. New York: Doubleday/Anchor.

Tang, C. S. (1994). "Prevalence of Spouse Abuse in Hong Kong." Journal of Family Violence 9:347–356.

Tjaden, P., and Thoennes, N. (2001). Prevalence and Consequences of Male-to-Female and Female-to-Male Intimate Partner Violence as Measured by the National Violence Against Women Survey. Violence Against Women 6:142–161.

Trainor, C., and Mihorean, K., eds. (2001). "Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2001." Statistics Canada, no. 85–224-XIE. Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Industry.

White, J. W., and Koss, M. P. (1991). "Courtship Violence: Incidence in a National Sample of Higher Education Students." Violence and Victims 6:247–256.

Yoshihama, M., and Sorenson, S. B. (1994). "Physical, Sexual, and Emotional Abuse by Male Intimates: Experiences of Women in Japan." Violence and Victims 9:63–77.

Other Resource

World Health Organization. (2002). Prevalence of Physical Violence Against Women. Available at www5.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/.


Six theoretical models have been developed to explain spouse abuse and neglect: social learning theory, social situational/stress and coping theory, general systems theory, resource theory, exchange/social control theory, and patriarchy.

Social learning theory proposes that individuals who experienced violence are more likely to use violence in the home than those who have experienced little or no violence. Children who either experience violence themselves or who witness violence between their parents are more likely to use violence when they grow up. This finding has been interpreted to support the idea that family violence is learned. The family is the institution and social group where people learn the roles of husband and wife, parent and child. The home is the primary place in which people learn how to deal with various stresses, crises, and frustrations. In many instances, the home is also where a person first experiences violence. Not only do people learn violent behavior, but they learn how to justify being violent. For example, hearing a father say, "This will hurt me more than it will hurt you," or a mother say, "You have been bad, so you deserve to be spanked," contributes to how children learn to justify violent behavior.

Social situation/stress and coping theory explains why violence is used in some situations and not others. The theory proposes that abuse and violence occur because of two main factors. The first is structural stress and the lack of coping resources in a family. For instance, the association between low income and family violence indicates that an important factor in violence is inadequate financial resources. The second factor is the cultural norm concerning the use of force and violence. In contemporary American society, as well as many other societies, violence is normative (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980). Thus, individuals learn to use violence both expressively and instrumentally as a way to cope with a pileup of stressor events.

General systems theory, a social system approach, was developed and applied by Murray Straus (1973) and Jean Giles-Sims (1983) to explain family violence. Here, violence is viewed as a system product rather than the result of individual pathology. The family system operations can maintain, escalate, or reduce levels of violence in families. General systems theory describes the processes that characterize the use of violence in family interactions and explains the way in which violence is managed and stabilized. Straus (1973) argues that a general systems theory of family violence must include at least three basic elements: (1) alternative courses of action or causal flow, (2) the feedback mechanisms that enable the system to make adjustments, and (3) system goals.

The resource theory of family violence assumes that all social systems (including the family) rest to some degree on force or the threat of force. The more resources—social, personal, and economic—a person can command, the more force that individual can muster. However, according to William Goode (1971), the more resources a person actually has, the less that person will actually use force in an open manner. Thus, a husband who wants to be the dominant person in the family, but has little education, has a job low in prestige and income, and lacks interpersonal skills may choose to use violence to maintain the dominant position.

Exchange/social control theory was developed by Richard J. Gelles (1983) on the basic propositions of an exchange theory of aggression. The exchange/social control model of family violence proposes that wife abuse is governed by the principle of costs and rewards. Drawing from exchange theory, Gelles (1983) notes that violence and abuse are used when the rewards are higher than the costs. Drawing from social control theories of delinquency, he proposes that the private nature of the family, the reluctance of social institutions and agencies to intervene, and the low risk of other interventions reduce the costs of abuse and violence. The cultural approval of violence as both expressive and instrumental behavior raises the potential rewards for violence.

The patriarchy theory's central thesis is that economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal (maledominated) social order and family structure. The central theoretical argument is that patriarchy leads to the subordination and oppression of women and causes the historical pattern of systematic violence directed against wives (Dobash and Dobash 1979; Pagelow 1984; Yllo 1983, 1993). The patriarchy theory finds the source of family violence in society at large and how it is organized, as opposed to within individual families or communities.


Dobash, R. E., and Dobash, R. (1979). Violence Against Wives. New York: Free Press.

Gelles, R. J. (1983). "An Exchange/Social Control Theory." In The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, ed. D. Finkelhor, R. Gelles, M. Straus, and
G. Hotaling. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Giles-Sims, J. (1983). Wife-Beating: A Systems Theory Approach. New York: Guilford.

Goode, W. (1971). "Force and Violence in the Family." Journal of Marriage and the Family 33:624–636.

Pagelow, M. (1984). Family Violence. New York: Praeger.

Straus, M. A. (1973). "A General Systems Theory Approach to a Theory of Violence Between Family Members." Social Science Information 12:105–125.

Straus, M. A.; Gelles, R. J.; and Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Doubleday/Anchor.

Yllo, K. (1983). "Using a Feminist Approach in Quantitative Research." In The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, ed. D. Finkelhor, R. Gelles,
M. Straus, and G. Hotaling. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Yllo, K. (1993). "Through a Feminist Lens: Gender, Power, and Violence." In Current Controversies on Family Violence, ed. R. Gelles and D. Loseke. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social Issues