Misleading WHO Study on Violence

Last week many news outlets reported on a study by the World Health Organization that blondes were becoming extinct — that turned out to be a hoax. No such study existed. But now WHO seems to be using a genuine report to distort the rate of homicides by intimate partners.

The New York Times summarizes the WHO report on intimate murder this way,

The study found that violence against women by their male partners occurs in all countries, regardless of economic class and religion. Data from Australia, the United States, Canada, Israel and South Africa show that 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

But the situation is not the same for male murder victims. In the United States, for instance, only 4 percent of men murdered from 1976 to 1996 were killed by their wives, ex-wives or girlfriends.

The problem with this statistic is that it makes it appear that the odds of a man being murdered by a girlfriend, wife or ex-wife is far lower than the risk that a woman will be killed by a boyfriend, husband or ex-husband.

But in the United States, the actual annual figures break out to something like 1,300 women killed by male intimates compared to about 600 men killed by female intimates. In most years, about 1/3rd of all murders by intimate partners are committed by women.

But at the same time, it is correct that only 4 percent of men who are murdered are killed by women they have an intimate relationship with. But this is because men are so much more likely to be murdered than are women. As WHO notes, men constitute approximately 3/4 of all homicide victims (in the United States, about 80 percent of murder victims are men).

Another major problem with WHO’s study on violence is that it lumps in suicide as an act of violence. Yes suicide is a problem and needs to be addressed, but somebody who wants to kill himself is not the same sort of social problem as somebody who wants to kill other people. Out of the 1.6 million victims of violence annually that WHO cites, well over 1 million of those deaths are the result of suicides.

Finally, WHO has lowballed the number of people who died as a result of violence at only 191 million in the 20th century. The complete report isn’t available online, but that figure is way too small unless WHO is playing with politics with who counts as a victim of violence.


First ever Global Report on Violence and Health released. World Health Organization, Press Release, October 3, 2002.

War, Murder and Suicide: A Year’s Toll Is 1.6 Million
. Sheryl Gay Stroberg, New York Times, October 3, 2003.

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