Domestic abuse: Male violence against women rises with female employment in many developing countries
17 March 2023
Dr Zahra Siddique’s study heightens the case for giving women the same access to divorce as men.
Conventional economic wisdom suggests that men are less likely to assault their female partners if the women are in employment. This wisdom is based upon evidence from developed countries, however.
Research by Zahra Siddique from the University of Bristol’s School of Economics provides new evidence from developing countries that runs counter to the prevailing view. In a study that could help policymakers cut domestic violence rates around the world, she shows how female empowerment needs to go much further than simply improving women’s employment prospects.
Ending violence against women
Siddique uses economic tools to explore the extent and distribution of male violence towards women, the drivers of the violence and possible policy solutions. Notably, her research helps fills gaps in researchers’ and policymakers’ understanding of women’s wellbeing in the developing world.
And intimate partner violence (IPV) – that is, domestic violence within an intimate relationship – tends to be higher in low-income countries. Sixty-six per cent of women in Central sub-Saharan Africa and 42% in South Asia say they have experienced IPV. This compares with 28% in Central Europe and 21% in North America, for example.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 for gender equality calls for an end to all forms of violence against women and girls, one of the ‘most pervasive human rights violations in the world’. As highlighted in a 2015 UN report, meeting this target demands a ‘step change in concerted action’. All factors that drive IPV must be tackled, from the economic and political, to the legal and social.
Unemployment and intimate partner violence: evidence from 31 developing countries
Siddique’s study, published in the World Bank Review in 2019, offers new insights on an economic factor that increases IPV rates: unemployment. Conducted with researchers from the Universities of Warwick and Reading, the study shows how unemployment interacts with social and legal influences on violence to compound the problem.
The team analysed data for women from 31 developing countries who had completed Demographic and Health Surveys between 2005 and 2016. One question its well-trained surveyors ask women is whether they have been physically or sexually abused in the previous 12 months. Siddique and colleagues then related the reported rates of abuse to unemployment rates in each country.
Opposing results for men and women
Unemployment did not seem to affect rates of sexual violence, it emerged. But the analysis showed a clear pattern between unemployment and physical violence.
Across all 31 countries, IPV against women went up by 2.7% with every 1% increase in male unemployment rates. While shocking, this finding is not necessarily surprising. It corresponds with what researchers already know, namely that men are less likely to restrain any violent tendencies under the stress of unemployment.
For every 1% fall in female unemployment, however, the rate of male violence against women went down by 2.87%.
Put another way, more men are violent when more women are employed.
This result contrasts starkly with evidence from similar studies in in the UK and US that forms the basis of “the conventional wisdom” on the matter. Although IPV is still prevalent in these developed countries, studies show that rising income and employment rates have helped lower IPV rates by freeing women from financial dependence on their partners.
In turn, women’s bargaining power in the household has risen. Or, in other words, men may feel less able to get away with violence for fear that their partner will leave them.
Male breadwinners and barriers to divorce
So why is the picture different in developing countries? Upon deeper analysis, Siddique and colleagues realised that violence did not go up with female unemployment in all 31 countries. In fact, this pattern of violence was only true for 24 of the countries. These are the countries where it is harder for women to get a divorce than for men.
Unequal access to divorce
Equal access to divorce
Democratic Republic of Congo
Sao Tome and Principe
Women have lower access to divorce than men in 24 of the 31 countries analysed (left-hand column). In these countries domestic violence rates increase with female employment rates. The researchers used the OECD’s 2019 Social Institutions Gender Index to define and measure access to divorce.
Siddique proposes an explanation for the results: ‘In developing countries, the “male breadwinner” social norm is much stronger than in the developed world. Our results suggest a clash between economic changes and social norms: it looks as though men feel threatened by rising female employment and are trying to reassert their authority through violence.’
And where there is no threat of divorce to deter violence, the probability of men physically assaulting their wives is greater.
Policy lessons: beyond economic empowerment
The results reveal a correlational – and not causal – relationship between unemployment, IPV and access to divorce. Siddique is currently taking a deeper dive into data from India and Pakistan to better understand causal relationships.
The study nonetheless offers a valuable lesson: ‘While it is obviously essential to improve the economic status of women, a narrow focus on increasing employment opportunities is not necessarily going to reduce violence,’ she warns. ‘And it may even backfire.’
Instead, the research supports holistic policy approaches to ridding society of IPV. Along with deep changes to social norms, ‘female empowerment has to come together with ease of divorce’, says Siddique.
The barriers to divorce are complex and vary by country and culture. In some countries the problem may be weak legal institutions: ‘perhaps divorced women don’t get the spousal support they’re legally entitled to for looking after their kids’. In others, the reasons could be religious or cultural: ‘in lots of places, divorce isn’t socially acceptable’.
‘You need comprehensive framework that makes it easier for a woman to leave her partner and it needs to be suited to the local context’, she concludes. ‘Just giving a cash transfer may not be enough’.