Independence and violence: how economic opportunities are affecting women in South Asia

Henna design on person's hand in traditional Asian attire

Across South Asia, opportunities are expanding for women. In higher education, employment and politics, gender equality and women’s empowerment is improving.

Now research, led by our Professor of International Development Studies, Professor Tamsin Bradley, explores the link between women, work and violence in the region, and what schemes can help support women in their search for equality.

The project, funded by the UK Department for International Development, focuses on women in Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

In each country, women spoke of having new decision-making powers that they linked directly to income. Their improved economic situation made them feel more confident and independent.

But the study found women in Nepal earning an income were 40% more likely to experience intimate partner violence. Professor Bradley's findings also highlight how social norms within South Asian culture threaten to simply shift violence out of the home and into places of work and study.

Women in all three countries felt physically unsafe while travelling to and from work. And when they eventually arrive, they are very likely to experience gendered harassment. That was true across all job types. Mental health is then negatively affected.

Even when they have personal economic resources, women are likely to remain in violent domestic environments because of social constraints linked to honour and shame. There's a normalisation of different forms of violence. It is something many women accept as part of their everyday life

Professor Tamsin Bradley

Professor of International Development Studies

Professor Bradley added: ‘We're trying to establish what the triggers are for [reaching] the realisation that their husband beating them is not normal or ok, and is abuse. We want to understand what environmental factors transform [women's] feelings from 'this is normal' to 'this is abuse'.'

Professor Bradley's research reveals that one factor matters more than most in helping women build resilience to violence. When women engage with women’s organisations, their willingness to challenge violent behaviour increases.

Armed with that knowledge, Professor Bradley and her team are now working out the best ways to take the messages of their research to governments in the region, so their findings will bring real change.

'In all these countries, we must be very careful with the way we communicate the results of this kind of research. Certain messages, politically, we can't push as it might inflict further harm,’ she said.

'The data will tell its own story. But we must communicate this message to the stakeholders so they both engage with and put resources into our recommendations,' she said.

'Myanmar is tough, but it is moving along slowly. In Pakistan, while change seems almost impossible, the women's movement is very strong there. In Nepal, there is a real chance of change. The government is embracing legislation and a framework to improve gender equality.'

A glimpse of a different future for the region's women, Professor Bradley’s research shows, for the first time, a path towards a gender-equal future in South Asia.