Opinion: Can women’s economic empowerment drive gender-based violence?

Women stitch handicrafts at Everest Fashion Fair Craft in Lalitpur, Nepal. Photo by: Peter Kapuscinski / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Women’s economic empowerment is often touted as the magic bullet — one that can respond to and mitigate violence by increasing the bargaining power women have within their households, communities, and beyond.

The proposed panacea is enticing: increase women’s earnings and bargaining power, raise household incomes, reduce poverty, and promote more gender equality within and beyond the household. However, others contend that while the focus on economic empowerment is critical, these approaches need to address the social and gender norms that underlie and perpetuate behaviors such as violence, especially in contexts where women don’t have the freedom to dissolve their marriages, leave their partners, and take their families and property with them.

Research shows that when women participate in paid work, some men may perceive this as an infringement of their traditional role as the breadwinner and they may seek to retrieve power to compensate for their perceived displacement by retaliating with violence.

The recent #MeToo campaign highlights the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in the lives of working women. Clearly, women’s labor force participation alone is not going to resolve gender-based violence and sexual harassment. More comprehensive and thoughtful solutions are needed to respond to this crisis.

As a starting point, there is a need for more nuanced research on violence, to move beyond the focus on intimate partner violence experienced at the household level and develop an understanding of whether women with more exposure to the public sphere experience elevated levels of violence or “backlash” from their male counterparts both, within and outside the home as they transgress traditional gender roles and challenge the prevailing gender ideologies. A clearer understanding of how violence manifests in the different areas of women’s lives, especially as more and more women enter the workforce, is needed to find effective solutions.

In the face of this evidence gap, the International Center for Research on Women recently undertook a study that surveyed 937 randomly selected Nepalese women members of cooperative societies spanning the seven districts of Nepal and assessed the nature of their workforce participation and the kinds of violence they experience from their intimate partners as well as other men in spaces that included their homes, the workplace, and other public places encountered on their commute to work.

In Nepal, where articulated and prevailing gender norms continue to favor men, we expected working Nepalese women to experience higher levels of violence from non-family members as they entered the public sphere. Yet, we had also hoped that we would also see shifts in gender relations toward more gender equal households as women worked and earned an income. The violence measures we investigated were categorized as physical, sexual, and emotional, and information was collected for violence experienced in the 12 months preceding the survey, as well as over their life course. We categorized an array of experiences of gender-based violence as well as intimate partner violence.

The workforce measures we chose to explore differentiated participation in unpaid work that generated productive resources from participation in paid work. In addition, the survey collected information on other measures of empowerment such as ownership of assets and participation in household decision-making, as well as information on the woman’s socioeconomic and demographic background.

Our findings underscored that as women enter the workforce and contribute to generating an income in Nepal, women were more likely to experience violence over their lifetime. But what we were saddened to learn was that this held true with both their intimate partners as well as other men — although the nature and intensity of this violence varied. While women were more likely to experience sexual and emotional violence from their intimate partners, they more often experienced physical and emotional violence from other men. The shift to more gender equal relations within the household, as yet, did not appear to have taken place.

Undoubtedly, the relationship between violence and women’s participation in work is complex. Some scholars posit that the relationship between empowerment and violence is most likely U-shaped, while a degree of empowerment allows women to challenge certain aspects of traditional sex roles, it comes with an increased risk of violence until a high enough level is reached for protective effects to predominate. Thus, during periods of transition in gender relations women may be at increased risk of violence.

This research shows that significant investments are needed in longitudinal studies for an in-depth examination of the relationship between women’s economic empowerment and violence in a way that charts different dimensions of their empowerment (political, social, and economic) and allows development practitioners and policymakers to better understand the point at which we may see reversals in the violence and backlash experienced. In the meantime, current policies and programs need to address the issue more comprehensively. Clearly, prevention approaches that focus on women’s empowerment in isolation will not be effective and could even be counter-productive. Preventive approaches that target and work at changing gender norms in tandem with empowerment approaches are more likely to succeed.

More investment is needed in innovative programs that do critical work around men and masculinities, or work with couples to foster healthy and equal relationships, support intra-household problem solving, and develop communications skills. But these initiatives must be accompanied by investments in monitoring and evaluation that allow us to understand what works and in what contexts. The platitudes about women’s economic empowerment need to be interrogated and the development community needs to take this this forward.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Neetu John

    Neetu John is a sexual and reproductive health specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). She is a public health expert whose work has focused on sexual and reproductive health, and its intersection with gender, socioeconomic disparities, and broader developmental processes.
  • Sarah Gammage

    Sarah Gammage is director of gender, economic empowerment, and livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women. She leads the organization’s work on women’s economic empowerment with a particular focus on labor markets, the care economy, time use and time burdens, and intra-household processes. She has more than 25 years of experience as a researcher and feminist economist, providing policy advice and supporting strategic advocacy on gender equality in Latin America, Africa and Asia.