Friday, April 12, 2013

The social and economic costs of gender-based violence in Bangladesh

The UN Commission on the Status of Women met again in New York on 4–15 March 2013, with a particular focus this year on prevention of gender-based violence

In this context, it is timely for policy-makers to contemplate the full social and economic costs of gender-based violence on women, families, communities and nations.

While official figures can’t fully capture the unreported, undocumented acts of violence that occur each day, the UN reports that globally, one in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused at some point in her life. According to national data compiled by UN Women, the lifetime risk for women of gender-based violence can exceed 70 per cent in some countries. To encourage action, it is important to give policy makers a better understanding of the implications and impacts of this epidemic of violence. To this end, CARE undertook the Cost of Violence Against Women (COVAW) initiative in Bangladesh. The report looks at how measuring the tangible cost of violence provides evidence of resources being drained from families, communities and the state.

Clearly there are challenges and ethical issues in putting a dollar figure on such a complex issue. The study developed a framework for calculating costs at the individual, family, community and macro levels of marital domestic violence. This approach captured social costs, including physical and mental insecurity, decreased confidence, absenteeism and dissolution of marriage, among others. It also considered physical/mental health costs, including increases in stress-related injuries, pain, physical injury, illness and disability. Finally, it addressed time costs — for recovery, for attending court, for hiding under protection — and direct monetary costs for courts, police, hospitals and at the national level for prevention campaigns. The study, by necessity, limited itself to marital domestic violence rather than the complex task of capturing the full breadth of gender-based violence in Bangladesh. Even within this scope, the research team was unable to put a price on some of the many intangible costs associated with domestic violence, particularly where these are neither measurable nor comparable.

The study found that when all quantifiable costs were considered, the total cost of domestic violence in Bangladesh in 2010 equated to 143 billion taka (over US$1.8 billion). This amounted to 2.05 per cent of GDP, or the equivalent of 12.65 per cent of government spending that year. This cost to the nation was close to the total government expenditure for the health and nutrition sector in Bangladesh that year. The majority of this cost is borne by survivors and their families, so it competes with vital expenditure needs for food and education.

The COVAW initiative not only sought to document the cost of violence but also to directly support behaviour change related to gender norms, practices and behaviours. The initiative fostered increased understanding and analysis among communities, NGOs and government about the link between violence against women and gender norms, practices and behaviours in marriage. This included engaging communities in dialogue and reflection on the scope of violence against women in their area, as well as on the causes, the social costs and also the effects of violence against women on village development. Importantly, this work also captured the experience of rural women in Bangladesh, where studies of this nature often focus only on urban areas.

Developing countries are not alone in bearing this enormous cost. In Australia the annual financial cost to the national economy has been cited as AU$8.1 billion. The UN Secretary-General’s 2005 in-depth study on violence against women found that when calculated across 13 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, Finland, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States) this cost amounted to US$50 billion per year.

Gender-based violence is a violation of human rights. This is not simply an issue of the private domain, and it is a result of deeply embedded structural issues of inequality and power. An earlier study undertaken in Bangladesh found that 77 per cent of female respondents believed that a husband had the right to beat his wife. The COVAW study found that dowry payments were the most common reason cited for violence, despite these being illegal in Bangladesh.

There is clearly much work ahead in addressing the complex relational and structural issues that underpin gender-based violence. That said, CARE has seen evidence across its programs of successful strategies in reducing gender-based violence. Such approaches include influencing change in community norms, providing support to community-based protection, empowering women and girls and engaging men, improving delivery of services to survivors of gender-based violence and advocating for change in public policies and their effective implementation. In 2010, these efforts contributed to the passage of domestic violence legislation in Uganda, Bangladesh and El Salvador. 

Initiatives such as the COVAW study in Bangladesh help agencies like CARE to build evidence to increase understanding of gender-based violence as an issue that affects poverty, development and economic growth, as well as fundamental human rights. If communities and governments can be supported to set and meet commitments to reduce gender-based violence, the significant amounts currently spent on addressing the issue could instead be reinvested for everyone’s benefit, to help families and communities out of poverty.

Andrew Rowell is the Manager of the Quality and Impact team at CARE Australia.
This article was first published on the Development Policy Blog.

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