The Role of Economic Independence in Domestic Violence: Evidence from Africa

Violence against women has long been and continues to be a widespread social problem across the globe. Statistics from UN Women—an United Nations entity dedicated to the empowerment of women—show that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either sexual violence by a non-partner or physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. Additionally, a 2015 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs report states that in some studies of individual countries, up to 70 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Policymakers have struggled with this conundrum because improvements in traditional human development indicators, such as health, education and labor force participation of women, have not necessarily been successful in combating the problem. In fact, a recent study by Harvard Economist Alberto Alesina and colleagues shows that economically independent women may be more prone to violence by an intimate partner. According to the authors, the explanation for this finding is that the increase in bargaining power due to economic independence among women is a challenge to traditional notions of gender roles. More specifically, the authors found that ethnic groups in which workforce participation has traditionally been equitable across genders exhibit lower levels of gendered violence in comparison to other groups in which male participation has traditionally been and continues to be higher than female participation in the labor market.

In the study, the authors test whether ethnic characteristics impact men’s attitudes about domestic violence in 18 countries in Africa. The authors used self-reported attitudinal data from demographic and health surveys, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for information on domestic violence, culture and ethnicity. The authors first selected actual cases of violence against women in these 18 African countries from across the continent. As a next step, the authors also included cases where data on attitudes toward violence—measured by justification for physically abusing a wife for burning food, neglecting children and arguing or refusing to have sex with the husband—was available within the sample. To ensure that self-reported ethnicities were classified into a finite number of groups based on a uniform framework, household ethnicity was mapped one-on-one using George Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, which identifies 717 ethnicities based on geography, language, and history.

The authors also used additional measures of ancestral characteristics to construct the study’s explanatory variables. These included, among other measures, gender-equitable land inheritance, dependence on fishing, dependence on gathering, female participation in husbandry, and the existence of a bride price. For instance, ethnic groups that have traditionally been primarily engaged in fishing, a male dominated activity, may be less gender-equitable than those involved in gathering, the activity with the highest share of female labor force participation relative to men in the study. Similarly, ethnic groups which have always had a bride price tend to be less gender-equitable than their counterparts.

Using linear regression, the authors test for a statistically significant relationship between domestic violence and the aforementioned ethnic characteristics. They also control for age, years of education, number of children born to a woman, and household size in order to ensure that their estimates are as precise as possible. The empirical analysis shows that women whose ancestors practiced cultivation activities in which male labor market dominance is high are 13.2 percentage points more likely to be victims of their husbands’ aggressions. Similarly, a tradition of dependence on fishing and hunting, which  are both practiced almost exclusively by men, is associated with more violence toward women today. Conversely, the authors also find that domestic violence tends to be less prevalent today among ethnicities characterized by a bride price custom in the past. The authors argue that if men paid in order to marry their wives, then they valued and cared for them more. Lastly, the study reports that dependence on gathering, which again is a more gender-equitable activity, may reduce the likelihood of violence against women by 3.5 percentage points.

This study is an example of how deep-rooted gendered attitudes facilitate domestic violence in African countries today. The study suggests that policy frameworks for dealing with this problem need to focus on long-term measures that can help uproot these attitudes that have existed for generations. For instance, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has piloted school-based curricula, which engage adolescents and help them challenge gender-based norms, in Vietnam and India. Ultimately, the study shows that while economic and social empowerment may help women understand their rights better, efforts to uproot gender stereotypes among both men and women are likely essential to addressing the problem of domestic violence against women.

Article source: Alesina, Alberto, Brioschi, Benedetta, and La Ferrara, Eliana. “Violence Against Women: A Cross-Cultural Analysis for Africa.” National Bureau of Economic Research, No. w21901: 2016.

Featured photo: cc/(rweisswald, photo ID: 627219212, from iStock by Getty Images)

Antra Bhatt
Antra Bhatt is an Economist by training with a keen interest in gender policy and methods of policy analysis. Prior to joining Harris, she was working with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India as Assistant Professor. At TISS, she taught quantitative research methodology and also worked on development policy related research. Prior to joining TISS, she worked as a consultant with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at their Rome Headquarters, Italy. She has also worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank on a project on ‘Sovereign Debt Sustainability in Asia Pacific’.

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