Conscientization and Action towards Spousal Violence against Women in Rural Bangladesh: Can Credit-driven Self-employment Make Women Less Vulnerable?

This article explores the relationship between women’s self-employment and intimate partner violence against women at the household level. In other words, the article aims to analyze whether involvement in loan initiated self-employment makes women less vulnerable as a result of their financial independence and self-development. The article is based on both primary and secondary data. Primary data was collected from forty women borrowers by applying an ethnographic study focusing on the women’s self-beliefs and interpretation relating to the impact of credit initiated self-employment on their transformed attitudes and management of intimate partner violence. By analyzing empirical data, the article confirms that women’s self-employment had a positive impact that in certain circumstances made them less oppressed at home.
Main Article: 

1. Introduction

Bangladesh is one of the less developed countries in the world having nearly 160 million people with 1.4% population growth rate (BSS, 2011, p3). But, over the last two decades the birth rate has gone down very sharply in Bangladesh, making it one of the lowest in South Asia. However, the country is affected by many challenges and uncertainties including gender inequality. Gender oppression and violence against women is a major obstacle to be overcome in order to achieve gender equality at various levels within the country. Gender based violence begins at a woman’s birth and in various forms it continues until her death at the household, community and state level (Islam, 2004, p1). The paper highlights women’s conscientization and action against intimate partner violence at the household level, which is the first crucial stage where married women are dominated and oppressed by their partners.

Gender issues are not merely women’s issues; they are also a concern at the developmental level. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is regarded as a key to fight poverty, hunger and injustice around the world. To ensure women’s empowerment, there is no other way but to eliminate gender based violence. In Bangladesh, micro-credit is assumed to improve gender relations at home by involving women in income generating activities. Nevertheless, the impact of micro-finance interventions on gender oppression at the domestic level is very much debated. Some studies demonstrate the contribution of micro-credit on spousal violence takes place through a complex process that has produced contradictory outcomes on gender relations. This paper is based on empirical research findings of a key question; to what extent and if so, how credit-driven self-employment helps women challenge gender oppression at the household level? The paper is divided into four important parts. The first part highlights paradoxical arguments both in favor of and against the impact of women’s employment through credit money has had on spousal violence against them at the household level. Secondly, the paper sheds light on the methodology adopted for conducting this research study. In the third section, findings of the study are determined with reference to the objective of the paper followed lastly by discussion, implications and conclusion.

A Review of Related Literature

Paradoxical Arguments

The academic discourse in this paper is quite relevant and encompasses wide ranging theoretical issues related to this field. Micro-credit is now accepted as a crucial tool for relieving poverty and empowering disadvantaged women all over the world. For this reason, it has gained the special attention of academics, researchers and practitioners globally (Rahman, 2007). There are two paradoxical arguments both in favor of and against the impact of credit on women. The controversy is especially pronounced when its impact on gender-based violence in taken into consideration. This signifies the importance of research in this area since it would be worthwhile in resolving the existing controversy.

Several studies have already been undertaken to investigate the effect of credit on spousal violence against women at home. Some studies suggest that spousal violence against women is partially related to a woman’s economic dependence on her husband. The lack of access to finance makes women dependent on their husbands, leading to women’s low status at home. So, women’s lack of access to economic resources on the one hand and lack of awareness about their rights on the other are contributing factors to women’s acceptance of spousal violence. Some research studies suggest that in some cases micro-credit can be a solution by creating a platform for self-employment opportunities. Micro-credit promotes basic human rights that enable access to other rights. As soon as women earn money they are empowered to exercise their rights and voice their various needs. Nonetheless, some other research studies indicate that micro-credit increases spousal violence instead of minimizing it. The following discussion highlights the debate and controversy prevailing in the literature.

Optimistic Arguments

Kabeer (1998) conducted a study on SEDP (Small Enterprise Development Program) loan recipients. She identified how credit impacted the bargaining process and power relations at home. She argues that depending on the source of violence, credit can have a positive effect on women by mitigating domestic violence. Poverty is a root cause of gender-based violence and Kabeer reported that most of her respondents identified poverty-related stress as the root cause of violence. Micro-credit mitigates violence by providing economic resources to the women which enabled them to undertake various income generating activities. Consequently, the women’s capability to share economic responsibility increased and they started to feel that they were no longer dependent on their husbands.

Bajracharya and Amin (2010) looked at the relationship between women’s participation in micro-credit groups and domestic violence in Bangladesh. Their research results demonstrated that the previously seen strong positive association between membership and violence was not sustained when an appropriate comparison group, generated by using propensity score matching, was used in the analyses. Multi-variate analyses also suggest that the level of violence between members and non-members is not significantly different and instead could depend on context-specific factors related to poverty. Another study conducted by Jayalakshmi (2009) examined the impact of micro-finance in reducing domestic violence against women. An analysis of data on the impact of micro-finance indicates that it contributes considerably towards the economic empowerment of the women. The data revealed that despite only 5 per cent of the respondents claiming to have benefited directly by the disbursement of micro-finance, others benefitted indirectly as a result of their involvement in self -help groups.

Bhattacharya et al. (2009) conducted a research on the nexus between marital violence and women’s employment in North Indian villages. They gathered wide-ranging data relating to the impact of women’s paid work on spousal violence. Their research suggests there is a positive relationship between women’s employment and asset status as measured by their participation in paid work and the reduction of violence against women. Their research suggests that women’s engagement in paid work is associated with a sharp reduction of spousal violence.

Pessimistic Arguments

There are some unreported cases where women who are loan recipients and are working neither use the credit nor have control over the activities initiated by the loan. Goetz and Gupta (1996) found that male members basically manage and control the loans. Their research reveals the fact that 63% of women had either partial, very limited or no control over the loans. Harper (1992) states that sometimes husbands take a loan in their wife’s name without informing her although the repayment liability falls on the women. Furthermore, female borrowers may have trouble meeting their weekly repayments because their husbands fail to use the loan profitably.

Greeley, 1997, Hashemi and Schuler, 1996, Kabeer and Ann, 1998 cited in Mahtab, 2007 illustrates another significant finding where although the NGOs’ policy encourages the provision of more than 90% of micro-loans to poor women, the literature suggests that unfortunately the picture in reality is different. They conclude with the notion that micro-credit is no panacea for the poor women. There are still many borrowers who have become more vulnerable and trapped by the system. The institutional debt burden on the individual’s household in turn increases anxiety and stress among the household members and produces new forms of social and institutional dominance over many women.

Similarly, Rahman (1999) conducted a study in a village focusing on female borrowers of the Grameen Bank. He argues that in some cases when women commence earning, the male withdraws his economic support for the family, increasing household tension and domestic violence. He revealed that more than half of his respondents experienced verbal abuse and physical beating following their involvement with the credit program. He claimed that in most cases women channel credit money to their husband. However, in his study Rahman did not mention whether women made the decision regarding loan utilization. He overlooked the fact in the socio-cultural context of Bangladesh where unsurprisingly women prefer to handle loans jointly. Again, Ahmed (2005) argues that the association between micro-credit-based development programs and domestic violence against women is negative. In his study, he found that about 17.5% of women had experienced violence from their husbands in the past four months, the proportion being greater among borrowers. He emphasized that age, education and the age of the household head are important predictors of violence, rather than the level of NGO membership. He concludes that the greatest level of violence is seen at the initial stage of NGO membership.

Furthermore, MK Nelly and McCord (2001, p7) have dramatically identified the positive and negative aspects of the empowerment engendered by micro-finance. The positive aspects include more economic opportunities, more community involvement, increased self-confidence and greater voice in the family. On the other hand, negative aspects include loss of control of loans, increased household tension, increased work load, and increased household debt and household violence. Failure to participate in income-generating activities may lead to domestic violence and household tension which certainly disempowers women.

All the studies mentioned above looked only at the physical violence except Kabeer (1998), who also looked at verbal violence. The existing literature demonstrates paradoxical arguments with regard to reducing gender-based violence by impact of micro-credit and engaging women in income-generating activities. The current research study is justified as relationship between women’s self-employment through micro-finance and its impact on violence against women is not conclusive.

Objective and Research Methods

The purpose of this paper is to explore to what extent and if so how self-employment enabled by credit leads to a reduction in spousal violence against women at the household level. Whilst some previous research studies have been conducted by applying quantitative research methodology, this current research follows qualitative research methodology. By applying ethnographic research design, the findings are not affected by the narrow focus of a statistical survey which is limited to identifying the nature, variation and context of spousal violence against women.

Primary and Secondary Data

The present study is based on both primary and secondary data. Primary data has been collected by using two data collection tools, namely individual in-depth interviews and Participatory Rural Appraisal. Detailed case stories were collected from in-depth interviews with the individual women borrowers. Secondary sources for the research includes data – obtained from different books written by scholars, research reports, journals, theses, relevant publications, NGO reports, daily newspapers and relevant websites.

Research Site, Sampling and Data Collection Techniques

My epistemological position drove the choice of methodology and method. Interpretive epistemological position drove the choice of inductive (qualitative) research methodology. Accordingly, qualitative research methods and data collection techniques were chosen to conduct the study. A total of 40 women beneficiaries were chosen by taking 24 and 16 respectively from the Association for Community Development and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. This research study did not require a very large sample size due to the case oriented qualitative research approach that was applied. A sample was selected based on the purpose of the study rather than the basis of the representative population. As Yin (1994) argues the evaluation of case studies should be based on the theoretical construct, not on the size of the sample, as is done in conventional quantitative strategies. My interest was to have a complete in-depth understanding of the case.

Women borrowers were chosen through purposive network sampling for detailed interviewing. Purposive sample sizes are often determined on the basis of theoretical saturation (The point in data collection when new data no longer brings additional insights to the research questions). Through in-depth interviews with each and every woman involved in self-employment, data was collected on the processes by which micro-credit might make a difference in spousal violence against them. Data were also collected on the women’s role in income-generating activities, their perception of their own well-being and their ownership and control of assets as well as any reported gender-based violence at the household level. The two villages named Chokkapashiya and Dewyanpara under Usufpur and Borogachi Union Parishad[i]respectively were selected on the basis of indicators such as location, availability of the programs in the villages, duration of programs, the number of beneficiary women and transport facilities from Rajshahi district[ii]. Epistemologically, the present research is based on interpretivism which requires an in-depth understanding of the research issue and the context.

Findings and Discussion

Gender-based violence is not uncommon in a patriarchal country like Bangladesh. Various forms of violence experienced during a woman’s lifetime start at birth and continue till her death. From childhood, women are raised with an understanding that they are worthless in comparison to men and that they have to depend on males for every matter. It is difficult to assess spousal violence against women at home as it is a confidential issue for them. However, an interesting finding from the in-depth interview revealed that many respondents showed little hesitation in discussing violence issues as they accepted the researcher as their trustworthy friend. In this study, the impact of women’s self-employment on spousal violence was observed from two perspectives- firstly, women’s conscientization and secondly, their reaction to intimate partner violence at the household level.

Conscientization with Regard to Spousal Violence against Women

Whilst participating in a series of individual in-depth interviews, the respondents reported that the majority of village women who were involved in credit programs had a changed attitude and perception towards their husbands. They identified credit as an important factor towards increasing their status within the family and their husbands’ behavioral change towards them. Most of them also identified many direct and indirect benefits of micro-credit. For example, they reported the benefit of being less economically dependent on their husbands as well as being economically solvent to some extent. Consequently, they received more respect from their husband.

The primary research suggests that 80% of the women respondents spoke up strongly regarding dowry-related violence. They identified dowry and early marriage as two important factors contributing to spousal violence against women. These women reported, being more aware about these issues since taking part in literacy classes and training programs offered by NGOs. Therefore, NGOs not only provide micro-credit but also some socio-cultural training to the recipients, which made them think and respond differently towards these gender-based issues. The direct quote from a respondent illustrates this:

Before joining a credit program, women were afraid of their husbands. Some of them were beaten by their husbands. It was revealed from the in-depth interviews that those women who contributed more to the family economy tended to be less physically abused by their husbands. The study suggests that membership in a micro-credit program whereby women are provided with a loan tended to be associated with a reduced incidence of domestic violence.

Action towards Spousal Violence against Women

The study revealed that 90% of the respondents identified poverty as the root cause of violence. Before their involvement in micro-credit, women depended on their husbands economically and otherwise. Many of them expressed a desire to contribute to their family income prior to joining a credit program but had no capital to do so. This situation changed when they joined a credit program and received the capital to launch income-generating activities. Consequently, they started contributing to their household income and were no longer economically dependent on their husbands. To a great extent, violence against women took place due to their husband’s inability to meet family demands. Women’s self-employment mitigated the violence by enabling them to share responsibilities and no longer be dependent on their husband’s income. The majority of the respondents identified their capacity to contribute to household income and their husband’s changed attitudes as the major outcomes from their involvement in self-employment.

The qualitative evidence given in the box sounds interesting to mention in the context.

The study suggests that woman’s self-employment helps to mitigate spousal violence by reducing poverty. In poor families, women’s economic contribution is vital and strengthens the women’s bargaining position within the household. Therefore, credit-operated employment contributes to the transformation of the power relationship at the household level. There is a clear shift in the conjugal relationship, which directly links with the women’s economic contribution to the household.

The study also confirms that the respondents are able to improve their marital relationship when they are more conscious about their rights and responsibilities and are empowered to protest against ill behavior. Women’s increased vocal role in the family with respect to decision-making happens not only through their economic contribution but also through the training they receive from NGOs. All these factors have resulted in changes to their attitude towards their role and responsibilities. Women’s access to material and non-material resources enabled them to stand up against their husband’s previous domination in decision-making at the personal, family and community level. The study by Kabeer (1998) corroborates this as she also identified that male violence occurs when the dominant group (i. e. males) resist the subordinate group’s (i.e. females) effort to push a ‘non-decisionable’[iii] issue to a ‘decision-able’[iv] area.

Policy Implications

The study suggests that participation in a credit program gave disadvantaged women more power to exercise their individual rights. They also achieved a greater capacity for decision-making, and bargaining power and to some extent greater mobility. Many women experienced less domestic violence following their involvement in self-employment. As the research suggests, there is a relationship between women’s involvement in income generating activities and the reduction of spousal violence against women at home, the key policy suggestion is to create more economic opportunities at the grassroots level. More jobs for women ought to be created not only at the base level but also at the middle and top levels. Moreover, social awareness raising training is also needed for clients on a regular basis as the primary research suggests training can make women more aware and able to manage spousal violence at the household level.

Conclusion and Future Research

The article demonstrates that in the majority of cases intimate partner violence is connected with poverty. Participation in employment makes women less vulnerable to spousal violence at home especially where violence is related to poverty. Women’s participation in credit-initiated income generating activities makes them less economically dependent on their partners. Women’s access to credit enables them to contribute economically to their family and this leads to less spousal violence as their status in the family is elevated. The women’s economic contribution to the family, therefore, has a positive effect on better and improved gender relations. There is no research without limitation. This research study did not assume to be free from limitations. Although adequate precautionary measures were taken in selecting samples and collecting data, some limitations can still be pronounced. As the study was confined to two selected villages of the Rajshahi District, it cannot portray the views and ideas of all rural women of the country as views and ideas expressed by the women of any particular village might differ from women living in other villages in the country. However, this research study does have some merit in the related field. Future researches could be conducted on whether the categories of employment when compared to economic inactivity affect the reduction of spousal violence against women. It is necessary to conduct further research relating to what extent and how women’s paid work in different categories might make a difference as it is always assumed that working outside the home is more empowering than working within the home.


[i] The lowest tier of four tier of our Local Government system

[ii] One of the Bangladesh’s sixty four districts

[iii] Men’s overall control over decision making

[iv] Joint decision making