[Photo: Scott Wallace/World Bank]
Submitted by Melissa Hidrobo and Shalini Roy
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is the most pervasive form of violence globally—with 1 in 3 women physically or sexually abused by a partner in her lifetime. Despite knowing a lot about prevalence and detrimental impacts of IPV, we are still at the infancy of knowing what works to prevent violence. Recently, development economists have begun exploring the potential of anti-poverty programming, including cash transfers. Cash transfers are a widely used policy tool for decreasing poverty and improving human capital, reaching up to 1 billion people across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Cash is often given directly to women, thus potentially changing power dynamics within the household. Their scale and reach to the most vulnerable populations have led many to ask, “If cash can change household well-being and power dynamics within households, can cash transfers also be used to decrease IPV?”
What We Know and What We Don’t
Recent studies from Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have shown that several cash transfer programs have decreased physical violence against women. A mixed methods study in Ecuador found that key factors there were decreases in poverty-related stress (leading to less tension and fewer arguments over women needing to ask men for money to buy food) and increases in women’s empowerment due to being targeted (which improved their bargaining power in the household, self-confidence, and freedom of movement). However there is still a lot we do not know. For example, many cash transfer programs – including those in the existing studies – combine transfers with other components, such as nutrition trainings and conditions related to education and health, which may affect women’s social or human capital distinctly from the transfers. So far, no study has been able to disentangle the impacts of cash versus the other components on IPV.
Moreover, the evidence to date on cash transfers and IPV has come from limited contexts. Given that the effects on IPV may depend on gender norms that vary by context, we need to collect evidence from other regions before concluding that transfers can reduce IPV globally. Importantly, we still do not know enough about whether in specific contexts or sub-groups, women might actually be put in danger from receiving cash, due to men utilizing IPV as a method to extract the cash or due to male backlash if men use IPV to re-assert their authority after a shift in power dynamics.
Learning from Bangladesh
Our ongoing Bangladesh study with co-authors John Hoddinott and Akhter Ahmed, recently awarded funding from the World Bank Group and nonprofit Sexual Violence Research Initiative, will help to fill some of these knowledge gaps. First, the intervention has both transfer-only arms and combined transfer-and-child-nutrition-training arms. Since the intervention arms are assigned randomly, we can disentangle whether a transfer is enough for impacts on IPV or whether adding training is really necessary. Second, the study comes from a context where IPV is very high – about 53-62 percent of women in Bangladesh report experiencing it in their lifetimes – and where gender norms are very different from Latin America or Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, female seclusion (women staying inside the home) is a strong sociocultural norm in rural South Asia. This could limit how much power dynamics shift when transfers are given to women, since women may have restricted mobility to use the transfers independently; on the other hand, it could increase the benefits of trainings for women, since trainings provide rare opportunities to leave the home and build social capital. Patriarchal norms in Bangladesh could also plausibly contribute to backlash if large transfers to women subvert traditional power dynamics.
Importance of Evidence Informed Practice
We may never find a solution for eliminating IPV around the world once and for all. However, research like the Bangladesh study may just reveal that cash transfers are a cost-effective and scalable step in the right direction – a lesson that World Bank staff working in Social Protection and Labor would be perfectly placed to absorb and put into action in our ongoing efforts to prevent IPV worldwide.
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