What does the evidence say about women’s empowerment and domestic violence?

| November 25, 2015


Approximately 30 per cent of women around the world, aged 15 and above, have experienced physical and/or intimate partner violence. Domestic violence is associated with health and psychological problems for women and adverse consequences for children later in life.

Despite the seriousness of the issue, the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of prevention interventions is still scarce in developing countries. There is also not a lot of evidence on the unintended impacts of social programmes, such as conditional cash transfers, on domestic violence. So, what does the existing evidence say?

Cash transfer programmes can have unintended impacts on domestic violence

Evidence shows that women, who were beneficiaries of the Oportunidades programme in Mexico, were more likely to receive verbal violent threats with no associated physical violence,. Also, the size of the cash transfer seems to matter. Women receiving large transfers seem to be more exposed to domestic violence.

The education status of female beneficiaries of an unconditional cash transfer in rural Ecuador was correlated with domestic violence. There is a significant decrease in psychological violence for women who had received more than primary education, due to the programme. However, there is an increase in emotional violence for women with primary education or less.

Are more empowered women less or more exposed to domestic violence?

The evidence just cited may lead us to think that women who are empowered are more able to stand up for their rights. As a consequence, they experience less domestic violence. But this conclusion may not be necessarily true. More empowered women may deviate from the traditional gender roles in the household. Men, who feel threatened by this, may use domestic violence as a way to restore the male dominance in the household.

The empirical evidence on the association between the status of the women within the household and domestic violence is mixed. Women with partners who have received secondary education or higher, are less likely to experience domestic violence in countries such as Egypt and India, but more likely in countries such as Peru. Women who receive a cash transfer (while not working) are less likely to experience domestic violence in Egypt, but more likely in India and Peru. The evidence suggests that context and social norms matter with respect to domestic violence.

Assessing women’s empowerment is not easy but it is important

Women’s empowerment has multiple dimensions and it can be approached in different ways. Concepts such as access, ownership, entitlement and control are used interchangeably.

In a recent piece of research that I undertook in rural Colombia, I explored different ways of measuring women’s empowerment and domestic violence. I analysed the sensitivity of the relationship between empowerment and domestic violence based on the definition I used. I explored various dimensions of women’s empowerment such as self-esteem, women’s disapproval of domestic violence, participation in household decisions, social capital, income and education. I also differentiated aggressive manifestations of domestic violence, such as hitting and the threat to hit; from controlling behaviour of their partner, which includes restricting them from visiting family and friends.

The results suggest that the different measures of women’s empowerment helped in explaining the more aggressive manifestations of domestic violence in comparison to controlling behaviour. Amongst the different measures of women’s empowerment, the one referring to women’s social capital seemed to be most highly correlated to domestic violence. Women’s self-esteem and disapproval of domestic violence appeared also to be positively and significantly correlated with domestic violence, though it is not as robust as women’s social capital. Surprisingly, I did not find women’s participation in household decisions to play a significant role in determining domestic violence.

A role for impact evaluations

To better understand domestic violence and design better social policies, much more analysis is needed. Impact evaluations can play an important role by providing robust evidence on crucial questions:

  • What are the channels through which social programmes can have an impact on domestic violence?
  • What kind of features should social programmes have to reduce domestic violence effectively?

The usual channel through which social programmes, such as cash transfers, can have an impact on domestic violence is through a change in women’s bargaining power. Therefore women’s empowerment needs to be accurately assessed.

Data collection instruments can also be improved in the following ways:

  • Include questions referring to women’s self-esteem and social capital.
  • Ask both men and women about the acceptance of domestic violence.
  • Explore women’s participation in different kinds of households’ decisions: the kind of food to be purchased, children’s schooling or income.
  • Include dimensions such as how to invest household savings and whether or not to sell an asset.
  • Don’t just assess physical violence. Assess psychological and emotional violence and a partner’s controlling behaviour. Determinants of each type of violence may be different and therefore, the theory of change would also differ for each one.

There are a whole range of social norms and structural determinants that affect behaviour. These need to be considered, not only in designing programmes to reduce domestic violence, but also while assessing the intended and unintended impacts of social programmes on domestic violence.

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4 Comments on “What does the evidence say about women’s empowerment and domestic violence?

  1. Hugh WaddingtonHugh Waddington

    Thanks Diana for imformative post. Just to note some related evidence on women’s self-help groups (SHGs), for which there is some concern about potential adverse effects on violence against participating women. A recent systematic review on the empowerment effects of SHGs collected evidence on outcomes measured using quantitative and qualitative methods. The review found very few impact evaluations that collected data on gender-based violence. Those that did simply used surveys to ask women their views on, or experiences of, intimate partner violence. I’m not convinced that measuring abuse and violence using such methods is likely to lead to ‘true’ responses because of courtesy bias. In qualitative studies on SHGs, on the other hand, women reported (eg in interviews and focus group discussion) increases in intimate partner violence and abuse at least initially. Over time, however, the women also felt that the activities of the SHG helped to reduce domestic violence, possibly due to the social pressure exerted by SHGs on men (solidarity) or where the SHG helped bring additional money into the household. I do see a lot of value in research that asks for participant views, but it is difficult to attribute these changes convincingly to programmes. And it is also not clear how representative these testimonials were either of SHG members or the communities as a whole (what happened to women who didn’t participate?). So, like your blog concludes, there is clearly a need for more rigorous mixed-methods impact evaluations on the consequences of such programmes on violence against women. Here is the link to the systematic review report: http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/lib/project/257/

    1. Diana Milena Lopez AvilaDiana Lopez

      Thanks Hugh for your comment. Working with self-reported questions raises always a concern, but what can be other ways to measure such outcomes, observational data? That also has its concerns. There is a long way to go in understanding and analyzing such outcomes. I’m definately going to take a look at the systematic review.


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