Our not-so-dirty little secret—and what cash has to do with it

by Amber Peterman, UNICEF Office of Research | UNICEF
Friday, 5 August 2016 14:15 GMT

Women hold signs as they take part in the "Marcha de las Putas" (SlutWalk), held to protest against discrimination and violence against women in Quito, March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The dirty-little-secret, that women are more likely to face violence in their own homes, than in a dark alley or in a roadside kidnapping, is out of the bag. Once understudied and underfunded, we now have ample evidence that intimate partner violence is the most pervasive form of violence globally—with 1 in 3 women physically or sexually abused by a partner in their lifetime. Of course, averages hide important disparities: Women living in London’s bustling urban affluence face a different probability of victimization than an impoverished women living in the sprawling slums of Mumbai. Yet, partner violence remains stubbornly high—affecting women in all walks of life across the globe.

In an era where scientists track micro-particles using satellites and regenerate organs, why do we know so little about preventing partner violence? One reason is that violence, particularly within intimate relationships, is highly entrenched in social norms and learned behaviour. For example, when children grow up in households where they watch their father hit their mother, they are conditioned to believe that these behaviours are normal, and even expected in relationships. Thus the cycle of violence feeds on momentum created by such compounding risk factors, fuelled by larger social systems. This has led researchers to conclude that social transformations at the national level that accompany economic growth, on their own are unlikely to cause reductions in abuse.

This is not a reason to lose hope. Anti-violence advocates have made enormous progress in the last decade in designing interventions to transform the attitudes and norms that sustain violence; but this is no easy task. Social norms that perpetuate gender inequalities are hard to measure, and may take years to show meaningful shifts. Equally important is the challenge of taking such interventions to scale: We have very little evidence to show if these interventions cost effective given other ways we could spend resources to improve the lives of vulnerable men, women and children.

But, what if there was another way? In 2011, the World Food Programme (WFP) commissioned the International Food Policy Research Institute, a D.C. based research firm, to conduct a five country study comparing the effectiveness of food and cash transfers to poor, food insecure households, in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Niger, Uganda, and Yemen. In Ecuador, Deborah Hines, WFP country representative had strong convictions about gender equity and had seen women suffering from abuse in field visits to program sites. Levels of partner violence in Ecuador are slightly higher than the global average, and program beneficiaries included a large percentage of Colombian refugees, whom are also at high risk for violence.

Although unusual for economic programming, the researchers were motivated to understand how programs affect gender dynamics in households and modified the study to allow a closer look at women’s lives over the intervention period.

The study, published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, showed that women in households that were given economic based transfers (food, cash or food vouchers) alongside monthly nutrition trainings, also showed significant decreases in recent physical and sexual violence and controlling behaviours by their partners (decreases ranging from 19 – 30 per cent). What was responsible for these changes? Researchers believe a key factor was the decreases in poverty-related stress alongside increases in food security of households, which led to less tension and arguments over meeting daily needs among couples as well as well as overall optimism and future outlook of household members.

The study offers an example of how tackling poverty (via transfers) has potential to affect outcomes like partner violence, without making it an explicit objective. The implications are significant. The notion of giving poor households cash to invest how they see fit has become an increasingly popular anti-poverty strategy worldwide. In 2015, approximately 718 million people in 130 countries globally are covered by some type of cash transfer.

Numerous governments have institutionalized programs at scale, and transferring cash is cost effective. Yet, cash transfers have not always been seen as reducing conflict within the household, as some program implementers have hypothesized that cash could actually increase tension and violence as couples argue over how to use it, or as men struggle to regain power or take control of the cash.

However, there was no trace of these dynamics in Ecuador. In fact, it did not matter which type of transfer was given, those households with food transfers showed the same reductions as those given cash, showing that even households that had reason to argue over spending or control over cash, did not do so.

In the world of increasingly complex social issues like partner violence, as we work to uncover long-term solutions through changing discriminatory social norms and patterns of intergenerational abuse, addressing poverty offers one short-term solution. We are still a long from where we need to be, no one should suffer from violence inside their own home, but just maybe we have made a course correction in the right direction.

Amber Peterman, Ph.D., is a Social Policy Specialist at the UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti, Melissa Hidrobo, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and Lori Heise, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Together and separately all are involved in trials to understand what works to prevent intimate partner violence and committed to furthering knowledge and political action on how to achieve a world free from violence.