Activists Promote Abortion at UN Commission on the Status of Women

International   |   Rebecca Oas, Ph.D   |   Mar 8, 2013   |   4:34PM   |   New York, NY

As negotiations intensify over the outcome document of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), many participants in the two-week event are hearing the same sobering statistic being repeated, unaware that it is a disingenuous misrepresentation of the facts, and that one of the women who created it twenty years ago is currently sitting on the US delegation to CSW.  The priority theme for this year is the prevention of violence against women.

An article published by AFP on March 5th reports:

“Much has been made at [CSW57] of a World Bank report which estimates that more women aged 15-44 are killed violently than die of malaria, HIV, cancer, accidents and war combined.”

Why the statistic is misleading

This statistic has taken on many forms and appears in a wide variety of places, including UNICEF, UNFPA, UN Women, Amnesty International, and the official UN resources for speakers, often without citation.


The source of the original data is the World Bank’s World Development Report 1993: Investing in Health (PDF).  A 1994 World Bank Discussion paper on violence against women contains a further analysis and modeling of the data from the development report.  This publication is titled The Hidden Health Burden  (PDF) and was written by Lori L. Heise, Jacqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germain.

The statistic derives from a table in the 1994 paper which compares the estimated global burden of a selection of diseases or causes of injury.  This is expressed in “disability adjusted life years (DALYs) lost, which combines the effects of disability, poor health, and early death.


(From The Hidden Health Burden by Heise, Pitanguy, and Germain (1994))

The table reveals several flaws in the statistic.  Most obviously, there is a disclaimer at the bottom which admits that “rape and domestic violence are included here for illustrative purposes” owing to the fact that, unlike the other items, they are classified in the original data as risk factors and not diseases in and of themselves.  Simply, this is a comparison of apples to oranges.

Additionally, the choice of diseases is suspect.  Women are most at risk for domestic violence during the reproductive age range (here classified as ages 15-44), but cancer risks are highest within an older age range, while malaria is most deadly among children.  Without this context, the data are misleading.  When you delete the portions of this graph outside the black lines, you get a very different picture indeed.


(Source data: 2010 Global Burden of Disease study; the interactive modeling feature can be found here.)

Based on the table in the 1994 paper, we can also conclude that the AFP quote is wrong to focus on mortality alone, wrong to claim that the combined effects of the other causes are less than that of violence against women (the sum of 18.2 being greater than 9.5), and utterly ridiculous to insert the reference to HIV out of thin air.  The latter addition is particularly egregious when you consider that HIV rose from being the 33rd-ranked cause of disease burden and death in 1990 to 5th in 2004, a position it has retained as of 2010.

In summary, this outdated statistic is founded on an invalid comparison between poorly chosen categories and further compounded by inaccurate reporting, ludicrous exaggerations, and a near-universal failure to verify facts.

Why this is important

None of this is to minimize the very real problem of violence against women and girls that exists worldwide.  However, flawed statistics will produce flawed solutions.  Victims of violence deserve better.

Even if the statistic were scientifically sound, it is based on 20-year-old data that predates the 1994 Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and fails to incorporate the effects of efforts made at the UN and within member states and communities to address violence against women.  To successfully track progress in preventing such violence, we must rely on accurate measures, legitimate comparisons, and rigorous statistical analysis.

Minimizing serious diseases like malaria and cancer and the devastation of war doesn’t help women who are desperate for services and justice.  This is particularly important in the developing world – the 1993 World Development Report pointed out:

“[Violence against women] account[s] for about 5 percent of the total disease burden among women ages 15–44 in developing countries, where the burden from maternal and communicable causes still overwhelms that from other conditions. In industrial countries, where the total disease burden is much smaller, this share rises to 19 percent.”

The ulterior motive

The source of this inaccurate statistic was co-authored by Adrienne Germain, who is President Emerita of the pro-abortion International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) and a longtime advocate who has devoted her career to bringing abortion to the developing world.  She is currently on the US delegation to CSW, using the context of violence against women to continue her efforts, which have been ongoing for over 20 years.  In the 1994 paper, she and her coauthors write:

“The United Nations list of abuses…includes only acts perpetuated by an individual or the state and excludes laws, policies, or structural inequalities that could be construed as violent (laws against abortion, structural adjustment policies)…[It] provides insufficient guidance to determine whether items that are not listed, such as female feticide or restrictive abortion policies, would constitute gender violence.”

Germain and current members of IWHC are working hard to expand the UN’s definition of human rights to include abortion, and to expand its definition of violence to include restricting access to it.  While a troubling statistic is always useful for advancing a cause, a table making a merely “illustrative” comparison doesn’t take on a life of its own and make its way into the talking points for multiple UN agencies without a calculated agenda behind it.

Abortion advocates are committed to using this year’s CSW to advance their efforts to establish a human right to abortion in international treaties and UN consensus documents.  From IWHC’s official Twitter feed:


As CSW continues, many of the side and parallel events feature the heartbreaking accounts of women around the world who have experienced violence, many of whom have been denied the help they need by ill-equipped or indifferent governments.  The failure of the delegates to reach consensus on an outcome document would do nothing to help them or prevent other women and girls from finding themselves in the same situation.  This begs the question the news media are not asking: will the abortion advocates be willing to set aside their agenda in order to avoid another stalemate?  Or will they continue to seek cover by attaching their cause to that of preventing violence against women – a cause they disingenuously promote by disseminating false data and twisting the very definition of the word violence. Note: Rebecca Oas writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Turtle Bay and Beyond blog and is used with permission.