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“You will be afraid of doing anything on your own”: Agricultural development, intimate partner violence, and women’s agency

This year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence presents a call—#HearMeToo—to bring to light the stories of women and girls everywhere who are experiencing violence. Insights from qualitative research for the Gender, Agriculture, and Assets Project (GAAP2), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), reflect why agricultural development researchers and practitioners need to learn from the people who experience intimate partner violence (IPV) about how it affects their lives.

GAAP2 works with a portfolio of 13 agricultural development and nutrition projects to adapt and validate a measure of women’s empowerment, the pro-WEAI. The pro-WEAI uses qualitative and quantitative methods to measure three types of agency: intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Initial findings from the qualitative studies in Burkina Faso (BRB Grameen Foundation[1]), Ethiopia (JP-RWEE[2]), Mali (WorldVeg[3]), Nepal (BASIS/Heifer International), and Tanzania (Maisha Bora[4]) reflect on why men perpetrate violence; the strategies women use to avoid it; and how IPV relates to women’s agency.

Both men and women deem violence acceptable under a range of circumstances—from poor care of livestock, disagreeing or arguing with their husband, or going somewhere without their husband’s permission, and men used violence as a way to secure women’s “discipline” and obedience. Baseline quantitative data from GAAP2 projects showed that 49 percent of women and 35 percent of men believe that IPV is acceptable, and 50 percent of women interviewed in a project in Burkina Faso reported that they had feared their spouse in the past year.

IPV is extremely prevalent in women’s lives and present in women’s daily decisions. The implications for development actors are clear: whether projects aim to do no harm, include women, or advance women’s empowerment, they must account for how the risk of IPV profoundly shapes women’s agency and ability to safely participate in and benefit from project activities. At the same time, supporting women in building agency requires caution to avoid increasing women’s exposure to IPV. The following examples illustrate how instrumental, collective, and intrinsic agency is eroded by IPV—and how women draw on these forms of agency to contest it.

Instrumental Agency:

Women across contexts noted how they change their behavior to avoid violence. This limits their instrumental agency, or power to make decisions in their own best interest.

Many women described how seeking control over assets and income causes conflict. In the WorldVeg project in Mali, a respondent observed, “There are cases that a husband sells goods belonging to his wife without asking for her consent, and she cannot ask for any account, otherwise she will face the risk of being beaten.” Similarly, in the JP-RWEE study in Ethiopia, men argued that they are the “presidents” in the home and can decide to sell livestock over their wives’ objections, and in the Maisha Bora study in Tanzania, women may be beaten for trying to influence important decisions. Women in many contexts say they do not inform men of their own earnings, and do not dispute their husbands’ sales or use of earnings to avoid conflict.

Targeting these dynamics, JP-RWEE in Ethiopia worked with government and NGO partners on women’s financial inclusion while encouraging women’s participation in household decision-making through community gender dialogues. The program sought to change norms so that cattle can only be sold with the agreement of both wife and husband and built awareness of women’s legal protections against domestic violence. One woman commented on the changes:

“I now have a good relationship with my husband. He used to whip me with a strip of animal skin (shaabbee). Now everything is done through discussion and in agreement. I will take him to a court of law if he dares to touch me now. I’m no longer in a state of lack of knowledge. In the past, husbands thought that women should not give them orders. Now we decide together.”

Development projects that aim to increase women’s instrumental agency must pay attention to how women’s decision-making power can both catalyze and be hindered by IPV. Projects need to be aware that women routinely hide or limit their assets, incomes, and their role in managing finances to avoid violence. Projects should not assume either that households share all resources equally or that whomever earns income or acquires an asset will be the undisputed owner.

Collective Agency:

In Nepal and Tanzania, IPV restricts women’s ability to participate in women’s groups and build collective agency, or the power we get from acting together with others.

In Tanzania, most women who reported IPV said that they were reluctant to participate in village community banking (VICOBA) or other NGO-run groups out of fear of displeasing their husbands. In the BASIS/Heifer study in Nepal, some women quit groups due to their husbands’ objections, especially if they thought that membership was not valuable enough to risk intrahousehold conflict or violence. Other women attempted to negotiate their husbands’ restrictions on mobility and group participation by limiting their movement to specific locations such as their parents’ household; putting more effort into household work; or leveraging support from their fellow group members. Some women decided not to inform their husbands of their movements.

At the same time, the BASIS/Heifer study in Nepal noted cases where women leverage group membership in response to violence. Some groups levy fines upon perpetrators of IPV, and in other cases, group members visit the household of a violent husband to humiliate him—with the wife considering the humiliation “necessary for him to change his mind.” One woman noted that her network through groups had given her courage to resist her husband, despite continued abuse.

Collective agency can also stem from mobilizing family ties and village leadership. In Tanzania, Maisha Bora found that while in most cases the community or family supports the husband, the village elders in some communities have punished husbands who beat their wives or children severely. If a woman comes from wealthy or powerful families, her family sometimes intervenes if she has been injured seriously by her husband.

Collective agency is a key pathway towards both freedom from violence and development. Many agricultural development projects form or strengthen organizations with the aim of empowering women. To do so successfully, they must take steps to support women to join these groups without fear of violence, including preventing and addressing potential violent responses by men.

Intrinsic Agency:

The constant threat of IPV affects women’s sense of self-worth and ability to act independently, or intrinsic agency. In Tanzania, a woman remarked on how fear of her partner keeps her from taking initiative:

You will be afraid of doing anything on your own just because it can result to beating. All the time you are thinking of the damages and pain of your body due to those sticks. You can lose parts of your body or get a disability.”

In the WorldVeg study in Mali, a woman observed how violence devalues women:

Even a small boy has more value than a woman, because women are afraid of threats from men. At a single occasion she is treated of rude and is threatened to death. That is not the case for men.”

Some women observed that husbands reduced their violent behavior over time as they built trust with their wives. In the Maisha Bora study in Tanzania, some women said that their husbands were more violent as young men, perhaps to show off power to other men and ensure domination over his wives. Over time, as one woman explained, this relationship may change:

“Nowadays my husband is not beating us too much like previous years when he beat us very much. It has changed over time... Even when you wanted to go to neighbor’s boma, you could go, but you were supposed to be back in few minutes, because he may think that you are meeting other men to have sex with them. So he instructed you to remain at home. In recent years, we are free to go to our neighbors’ bomas or any other place with minimal control from our husband, because he has changed his perception of us.”

Low intrinsic agency can keep women from having the confidence to participate in projects or to develop collective or instrumental agency. To ensure projects’ reach, benefits, and outcomes, they can  promote respect for women along with healthy masculinities and non-violent conflict resolution.

Recognizing IPV in rural development projects

Many agricultural development organizations and researchers alike are hesitant to study IPV or other forms of gender-based violence, considering these topics too “risky” or outside the scope of their expertise and project responsibilities.

However, development actors cannot afford to ignore how IPV harms women physically and psychologically, influences their daily behavior, and keeps them from making decisions in their own best interest. Common approaches intended to strengthen women’s agency—including group membership, income generation, and transforming gender norms—can fail if women avoid development activities out of fear of violent repercussions. Further, development interventions can expose women to increased violence.

For these reasons, we need to see IPV as falling within the responsibility of agricultural development activities and build our capacity to safely study it. WHO provides guidelines for responsible data collection about women’s experiences with violence, and USAID has shared guidance on preventing and responding to GBV in economic growth projects. Though collecting these data requires training, sensitivity, and preparation, without it we cannot learn how interventions and other factors influence IPV or how IPV affects women’s agency and livelihoods.

To ensure agricultural programs contribute to ending rather than obscuring IPV, we must safely seek out and listen to the stories of survivors, as well as unpack the attitudes and motivations of perpetrators and enablers. Ultimately, we cannot support women to end a problem until we more deliberately grapple to acknowledge and understand it.

This blog draws from the GAAP2 qualitative research reports submitted by Caitlin Kieran, Bobbi Gray, and Megan Gash (BRB Grameen Foundation); Annet Mulema (JP-RWEE); Mahamadou Lamine Bagayoko (WorldVeg); Anjam Singh and Rajendra Pradhan (BASIS/Heifer International); and Brooke Krause, Susan James, Aine McCarthy, and Marc Bellemare (Maisha Bora).


[1] Building Resilience in Burkina Faso by the Grameen Foundation

[2] UN Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women

[3] World Vegetable Center

[4] Maisha Bora Program for Women’s Food Security in Impoverished Maasai Households