"Violence against women is an abomination. It cannot be tolerated, in any form, in any context, in any circumstances, by any political leader or by any government," Ban told ministers from over 50 countries attending the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, which began on March 2.

A year after he launched UNiTE, a global campaign to end violence against women, Ban said the world must do more to combat the abuse of women and girls.

"We must unite. The time for change is now. Only by standing together and speaking out can we make a difference," he said.

DRC abuse 'shock'

Ban recalled a young woman he met on his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who was "brutally and violently abused by four soldiers at gunpoint" in eastern Congo while fleeing fighting that destroyed her village.

"She is now at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, suffering not only from her physical injuries but from being ostracised by her village and family from a false sense of shame", he said.

"I was shocked ... I was also very, very angry"

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

"I was shocked ... I was saddened almost beyond expression. I was also very, very angry."

Ban recently returned from a visit to the country following the unrest that erupted in August, sparking a humanitarian crisis and displacing more than a quarter of a million people.

He visited a clinic where women were being treated, and also held talks with Joseph Kabila, the DRC president.

Ban said he spoke forcefully about the young woman and other victims of rape and abuse when he met Kabila, the commander of DRC forces in the east, and the governor and local authorities, "and I will keep speaking out against such unspeakable atrocities".

"I told President Kabila ... As the leader of a country, the sovereign leader of a sovereign country, whenever sexual violence may happen, he must be responsible," he said.

Universal truth

Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are at greater risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, traffic accidents, war and malaria, says the UN.

Violence against women has been reported in every international or non-international warzone and that half of all women murdered are killed by their current or former partner.

Violence against women

 One in three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or abused in her lifetime
One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape
 Women make up more than 80 per cent of trafficked people
 Up to 130 million women have been subjected to genital mutilation

But Ban said there was "one universal truth applicable to all countries, cultures and communities; violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable".

The UN says that the cost of violence against women is "extremely high".

"The consequences of violence go beyond the visible and immediate. Death, injury, medical costs and lost employment are but the tip of an iceberg," Ban said.

"The impact on women and girls, their families, their communities and their societies in terms of shattered lives and livelihoods is beyond calculation," he said.

Ban's campaign will continue until 2015 to coincide with the target date to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals aimed at combatting poverty.

In addition to personally approaching world leaders, Ban said, the campaign aims to ensure that violence against women is always a crime and that real efforts are made to punish the perpetrators.

"We need to combat attitudes and behaviours that condone, tolerate, excuse or ignore violence committed against women."

UN database

Asha-Rose Migiro, a former Tanzanian minister for gender equality, later unveiled a database to document "the extent, nature and consequences of all forms of violence against women," as well as "the impact and effectiveness of policies and programs for combating such violence".

"The silence about violence against women has been broken"

Yakin Erturk, UN special rapporteur

She said this tool would provide individuals and officials useful information to help improve laws, plans of action, policies and services targeting the violence.

Yakin Erturk, the UN's special rapporteur on Violence Against Women, expressed optimism.

"Women around the world are no longer fearful of speaking out against the violence they encounter," she said.

"The silence about violence against women has been broken ... It's an initial step, but it's a prerequisite for us to respond to that violence. I think women in all parts of the world now realise that violence is not their fate."

The theme of this year's International Women's Day on March 8 is "women and men united to end violence against women and girls".