Might your project lead to more domestic violence? Our guide helps you work out the risks

Isabelle de Champlain-Bringué Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls, Women's Economic Empowerment

Women’s economic empowerment projects can cut domestic violence – but may also increase it. In this blog for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, Oxfam Québec‘s Isabelle de Champlain-Bringué introduces a guide that equips practitioners to identify and manage the risks 

Mural for the Génera Campaign agaist domestic violence in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Credit: mARTadero (2019)

Although women’s economic empowerment (WEE) projects encourage women to strive for empowerment and material independence, the resulting autonomy can also create tensions within families and communities, which sometimes translate into domestic violence (DV). The research literature also tells us that WEE initiatives can raise, as well as reduce, women’s risk of being subjected to domestic violence. That is why it is so vital that strategies to reduce domestic violence are at the heart of every economic empowerment project.

So how can you tell if your project is raising the risk of domestic violence?

To answer this question, Oxfam-Québec conducted multi-country action research to better understand the impacts of women’s economic empowerment on domestic violence and to identify risk and protection factors. A key recommendation was to equip economic development practitioners to prevent, identify and manage DV cases. This led to the conception, by Oxfam-Québec, of this practical guide for professionals running economic programs.

Domestic violence refers to violent and controlling behaviors exhibited within the family or the conjugal relationship. Within the life cycle of a project, there are many opportunities to integrate strategies to reduce such violence. Our guide dedicates a whole section on demystifying the connection between WEE and DV as well as examining circumstances that might influence the risks. It then looks at how to identify and mitigate risk factors, and contexts of vulnerability that could make a person more likely to suffer (or commit) DV.  

“Husbands were encouraged to spend time at their wife’s business to better understand their work and also to join male discussion groups around positive masculinities”

The risk factors are spelled out in the guide (where you can find references to the literature mentioned below) but they include:

  • Challenges to traditional gender roles and norms: Women’s financial independence can be viewed by spouses as a threat to their power. This may lead to resistance from spouses, generating conflicts that may result in DV, especially where there is a high level of gender inequality in the household. Violence may also occur when the spouse cannot accept that the woman, having become financially independent, starts to play a role in the public space (markets, group meetings, jobs, politics, etc).
  • Social, political and cultural context: Although DV affects women of all classes and social groups, those who work to achieve economic independence in certain social, political and cultural contexts are at greater risk. Factors may include the community’s values and progressiveness, the extent to which violence against women and girls is accepted in the society, policies and services implemented by public institutions, laws (and failures of enforcement), wars and internal conflicts.
  • Level of education: Some studies show working women with higher levels of education suffer less emotional violence and control by their partner; but others suggest highly educated women are more likely to suffer DV than less well educated women. It therefore appears education may be both a protective factor, increasing women’s knowledge of their rights and health resources, and a risk factor, posing a challenge to traditional gender roles.
  • Income: Some studies suggest stress arising from poverty and low income is a risk factor, which would mean women developing their economic independence would help to reduce DV. Yet again there is no consensus in the literature, as some studies suggest women having a higher income than their partner are more likely to face DV. Other studies suggest economic empowerment may enable women to avoid conflict and even to leave an abusive relationship.
  • Employment status of each partner: Higher numbers of women who work outside the home or hold a casual seasonal job report experiencing sexual violence in a conjugal context compared with women who hold a regular job or work within the home. Moreover, male partners who have difficulty finding and holding down a job are more likely to be violent towards their female partner.

An ethical, feminist approach to gathering data

Having an up-to-date and context-specific gender and power analysis to inform a project or program is of course crucial to guarantee safe programming as it lays the foundation for a risk mitigation and management plan. However, the quality of the analysis and the safety of the respondents and research team are highly dependent on the methods used to gather the data.

In particular, adopting feminist and ethical principles around the gathering of sensitive data is crucial.  What this involves is explained in detail in the guide but, in brief, when collecting data about domestic violence, it means taking into consideration issues of consent, confidentiality and prioritizing participants’ safety and needs. Throughout a project, applying feminist principles also signifies, for example, a meaningful and representative participation by a diversity of participants. Projects must also question power dynamics and recognise personal biases within the team.

We need prevention and mitigation

Adopting both prevention and mitigation strategies is essential to tackling domestic violence. Prevention often involves addressing the negative social norms that contribute and perpetuate gender-based violence. In practice this can mean involving spouses, family and community members in the project.

For example, in a WEE project in Burkina Faso, the husbands were invited to an information session at the launch of the project and house visits were made regularly to meet with the whole family to discuss the project. The husbands were encouraged to spend time at their wife’s business to better understand their work and also to join male discussion groups around positive masculinities.

Our responsibilities to survivors

Mitigation strategies, on the other hand, are generally aimed at providing services, resources and support to survivors. Indeed, it is essential we as development practitioners understand and accept our role in supporting survivors. By creating a bond of trust with the participants, we can be a source of support in the event of a DV situation.

Project staff have a responsibility to support survivors by listening and guiding them towards appropriate assistance, if requested. This means mapping and building personal links with the local resources available. The guide provides more orientation for economic project staff regarding their specific roles and responsibilities in supporting survivors .

A joined-up approach for every WEE project

All WEE projects need strategies to prevent and mitigate gender-based violence – and domestic violence in particular. At the heart of these strategies, there should be a joined up approach that links women’s rights and gender specialists to economic practitioners which will help the latter recognize and prevent the potential risk of (re)victimisation for women taking part in their projects.

This is the third in a sequence of blogs Views & Voices is publishing about the international 16 Days campaign, as part of a range of content across Oxfam. You can read the launch paper for Oxfam’s 16 Days campaign here and a blog introducing the campaign here. The first blog, about violence against LGBTQIA+ people in central America, is here; the second, about a six-year programme to mobilise communities in South and East Asia against GBV, is here

About the author: Isabelle de Champlain-Bringué is the Gender Justice & Women’s Rights Program Officer for Oxfam-Québec’s Knowledge and Impact Team, based in Montréal, Canada. Previously, Isabelle was a Gender Justice Advisor for Oxfam in OPTI