Domestic Violence in Developing Countries: An Intergenerational Crisis
(September 2004) A new comparative study using nationally representative information on domestic violence in nine developing countries finds that women whose fathers abused their mothers are twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse themselves.
The report, Profiling Domestic Violence: A Multi-Country Study, published by ORC Macro, also finds that domestic violence in these countries is highly correlated with a husband’s drunkenness and controlling behaviors. But the study did not find that a woman’s poverty, lack of education, or lack of decisionmaking control consistently elevate her risk of being abused.1
“Gender-based violence is a gender issue,” explains Kiersten Johnson, a co-author of the study and a researcher at ORC Macro. For example, the study found that women who shared the bulk of household decisions with their male partners were at a lower risk of abuse—regardless of their household’s income levels.
Domestic Violence is a Worldwide Problem
The report is based on data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) in nine developing countries: Cambodia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Haiti, India, Nicaragua, Peru, and Zambia. These surveys, conducted mostly after 1998, collected comprehensive demographic and health data from women ages 15 to 49. In addition, information was collected on “empowerment” indicators such as education, employment, and participation in household decisionmaking.
Researchers also asked the women about their experience of domestic violence throughout their adult lives, including detailed questions about their experience of physical, sexual, and emotional violence within their current relationships. The percentages of women who said an intimate partner had ever abused them ranged from 48 percent in Zambia and 44 percent in Colombia to 18 percent in Cambodia and 19 percent in India. (A 1998 Commonwealth Fund study put levels of similar violence in the United States at 31 percent.2)
More than one in six married women in each country that was studied reported being pushed, shaken, slapped, or targeted with a thrown object by their male partners. At least one in 10 has been threatened or publicly humiliated by their husbands.
Co-author Sunita Kishor, a senior gender specialist at ORC Macro, cautioned that survey questions differed across some of the countries, making absolute comparisons of domestic-abuse prevalence problematic. But Profiling Domestic Violence makes clear that domestic violence remains a problem in these nine countries—and that in at least several of them, women are socialized into accepting its legitimacy under some circumstances.
“Educated women tend to disagree [with the practice of domestic abuse] more, but it’s not as if you get a zero-level of disagreement even among them,” says Kishor. “In most countries, the gender-role norm violation that woman are most likely to agree with as deserving of a beating is a woman’s neglect of her children. This is very, very telling—there’s a huge buy-in to the care of children being a very fundamental duty of women.”
Culture of Violence ‘Akin to Second-Hand Smoke’
The wealth of data collected by DHS also enabled Kishor and Johnson to identify common global risk factors for domestic violence—all of which, they stress, are largely beyond a woman’s control.
“Often there’s this belief that you see in public discourse that women who are beaten are in some way to blame—they’re too fat or unattractive, for example,” says Johnson. “But it’s not any one characteristic or aspect of your life. Instead, there are multiple factors at the individual, husband, and family level—including your ‘inheritance’—that are dynamically interacting.”
By “inheritance,” Johnson means a woman’s experience as a child of her mother’s abuse. Such experience, Kishor says, has “tremendous intergenerational implications.”
“I don’t think enough attention is being paid to these matters,” says Kishor. “The data shows that even exposure to a mother’s experience of abuse, not just firsthand violence, almost doubles your risk [of being abused yourself]. It’s akin to the literature about secondhand smoke—even exposure to it can have ill-effects” (see Table 1).
Percentages of ever-married women age 15-49 who experienced spousal violence ever and in the past 12 months, by whether their mother was ever beaten by their father
|Ever Experienced Spousal Violence|
|Father beat mother|
|Experienced Violence in the Past 12 Months|
|Father beat mother|
u = Unknown (not available)
Note: Data not available for remaining three countries studied in report.
Profiling Domestic Violence also found that other common correlates of domestic abuse—besides having husbands who frequently get drunk or exhibit controlling behaviors (such as limiting her outside contact or repeatedly accusing her of infidelity)—include:
- Being married more than once;
- Being married young;
- Having multiple children; or
- Being older than your husband.
In addition, Kishor and Johnson found that many abused women in developing countries do not seek help, ranging from 41 percent in Nicaragua to 78 percent in Cambodia. And those who do reach out often contact people they know rather than health professionals.
Disempowerment and Violence: No Clear Connection
Surprisingly, several measures of female empowerment—employment, education, or attitudes related to gender equity, such as believing that women have the right to refuse sex to their husbands—did not directly correlate in the study with a reduced risk of abuse. And women who make most of their household’s decisions alone—such as whether to make large purchases or to have another child—were victims of domestic violence at the same rate as those with little say in the allocation of their family’s resources. Instead, the study found that women who made decisions jointly with their male partners suffered far less abuse.
“The causality is not clear from these data between increased risk of abuse for women who make most of the decisions alone,” Kishor says. “Is it because she is in such a dysfunctional relationship that she is forced into taking charge? Or is it because she’s taking the decisions alone that she’s actually being beaten?” This uncertainty, she adds, raises questions about conventional indices of empowerment.
“We need to be looking closely at a lot of these indicators and asking what they’re really telling us in different contexts,” Kishor says. “While empowerment usually implies that you are in control of your life, the data suggest that, within a marital context, ‘dominating’ [these] decisions may not equate to empowerment.”
The Health Consequences of Abuse
The study found clearer connections between abuse and degraded health for victimized women and their children. For instance, women in almost all the surveyed countries who had experienced abuse from their intimate partners had higher rates of unwanted births and nonlive births (by 33 percent to 72 percent) than those who had never been abused.
Women who experienced violence were also more likely to have had sexually transmitted infections, their pregnancies were substantially less likely to have received first-trimester antenatal care, and their children between the ages of 12 months and 35 months were less likely to have been fully vaccinated. The children of abused women were also more likely to die before age 5.
Both authors stress that including national domestic violence statistics alongside health and demographic information is a large step forward in addressing the roots of abuse.
“Up until recently, there wasn’t the kind of impetus or interest in this kind of data, or even the recognition of domestic violence as an issue of public health and development,” Johnson says. “It’s important to know that there are multiple factors involved, and thus multiple arenas in which interventions can occur.”
Robert Lalasz is a senior editor at PRB.
- Sunita Kishor and Kiersten Johnson, Profiling Domestic Violence: A Multi-Country Study (Columbia, MD: ORC Macro, 2004).
- Karen Scott Collins et al., Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: The Commonwealth Fund 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, accessed at www.cmwf.org/usr_doc/Healthconcerns_surveyreport.pdf, on Sept. 14, 2004.
For More Information
Profiling Domestic Violence: A Multi-Country Study is available at www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/OD31/DV.pdf.