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Does Economic Empowerment for Women in India Prevent Domestic Violence?

Late last year, a Bollywood movie sparked a debate across India on domestic violence. Secret Superstar, an Aamir Khan production released in October 2017, tells the story of a Muslim girl who helps her mother to escape her father, who regularly beats them both. In typical Bollywood style, she does so by becoming a famous singer. 

The movie brought attention to the prevalence of domestic violence in India. Over 30% of married women in the country have faced physical, sexual or emotional violence from their husbands. 

It’s more than a decade since the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 was passed, defining “domestic violence” for the first time in Indian law. However, problems with implementation, as well as persistent social norms which portray women as inferior and domestic violence as acceptable, have left a big gap between policy and practice. 

One possible route to tackle domestic violence is to empower women economically. This is a theme in Secret Superstar, as it is only with the daughter’s career success that the family are able to escape abuse. Of course, the reality is far less straightforward.

Research has shown a complex relationship between women’s income and the likelihood of intimate partner violence (IPV). In a country where the female labour force participation rate is only 27%, women working can sometimes be an indication of household financial stress and they often bring in vital income to support their families. 

However, a woman working also disrupts traditional gender roles and can result in resentment from her husband, putting her at further risk of violence. Financial empowerment can also encourage women to assert themselves, which can in turn lead to household conflict. This backlash effect may partly explain why states in India with a higher proportion of women bringing home cash earnings also have higher rates of IPV. 

“Many women face hostility if they are seen as not performing their roles at home,” Ravi Verma says. Verma is Regional Director of ICRW’s New Delhi Office. “There is a lot of violence that they experience when they work in non-traditional roles.” In India, most work that takes women outside of the home or closely-knit community is considered a “non-traditional” role.

Financial freedom

Economic empowerment isn’t just about earnings. It’s also about control over money. The Indian government’s recent financial inclusion drive has led to more women than ever before owning their own bank account. Some 170 million women have signed up, reducing the gender gap in account ownership from 20 percentage points in 2014 to 6 percentage points in 2017.

A recent study in rural Maharashtra found that women who had their own bank account were less likely to experience IPV over time. It also found that women’s joint control over their husband’s income appeared to reduce the risk of violence, whereas her earnings or control over her own income did not.

“There was something about having an account that was associated with lower risk of physical violence from a partner,” says the lead author Anita Raj, Director of the Center on Gender Equality and Wealth at the University of California at San Diego. “We think it’s more likely to be a marker that women have some freedom of movement, some autonomy … We’re still in the early stages of knowing whether it’s a marker or a precursor.” She adds that when a woman lost her bank account “that was really highly correlated with the violence”. 

More research is needed to determine how far financial inclusion may empower women to protect themselves against domestic violence. Raj warns against making assumptions. Maharashtra is a relatively wealthy state. However, women in poor rural areas are the most likely to be “unbanked” and also the most likely to suffer from domestic abuse. 

It should also be noted that India has the highest rate in the world of inactive bank accounts.

Women may be opening accounts, but that doesn’t mean they can access them. 

However Raj believes that the current drive to create a more gender equitable financial climate could be an opportunity for Indian women. First, she says, banks and government schemes need to apply a gendered lens. “They bear some responsibility for thinking through the process and having some support and resources in place,” she says. 

Bargaining power 

Another route to empowerment is through asset ownership. Another recent study shows that women who own land and property in India appear to be at decreased risk of marital violence. While employment is often insecure, with wages handed directly to the husband, a woman with a house or land to her name may be in a more secure position. This dynamic is one of the many reasons why the right to land and housing is one of the major platforms of the women’s movement in India.

In 2005 a key step forward was made when the Hindu Succession Act gave daughters equal inheritance rights. The Act affects over 80% of the Indian population – not only Hindus but also Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Previously if parents died without a will, “ancestral property”, usually land, was passed down to the sons and not the daughters. 

A 2013 study from the American Enterprise Institute found that women who had benefited from the change in law were significantly less likely to be beaten by their husbands. It focused on five states – Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka – which had enacted the changes before the 2005 Act finished the job at a federal level. 

This decrease in marital violence appears to be related to choosing a husband. A recent econometric study from the University of Essex concluded that families appeared more able to negotiate a better match for daughters who had inherited land. “This is a form of female empowerment that doesn’t disrupt the home,” the author Sofia Amaral says, as it puts women in a stronger position before they enter into a marriage. 

While implementation of the Act has been slow, it also avoids the common problem of women’s lower literacy rates. It’s usually the father who negotiates the marriage match. 

A fluid picture

How much can these recent studies tell us about the national picture? It’s clear that more research needs to be done given the complex factors at play. With any policy or legal change, it’s important to recognise that the end results will depend on the personal dynamics between the woman and her husband. It can be difficult to predict long term trends. For example while women’s earnings can trigger IPV in the short term, there’s also evidence to suggest that higher household income decreases the general risk of violence.  

Patriarchal attitudes in India lie at the heart of both domestic abuse and women’s financial inequality and the relationship between economic empowerment and IPV is clearly not straightforward. The Secret Superstar movie, with its tear-jerking portrayal of female emancipation, attempted to show how these norms can be challenges. However, it’s a drop in the ocean. Deep social and cultural changes are needed before women in India can benefit fully from the country’s economic boom. 

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Date published
  • 2018
  • Niki Seth-Smith