Intrahousehold Income Inequality and Conflict: Testing an Economic Model of Domestic Violence in Kerala, India

Kaivan Munshi, Economics, Brown University

Research Grant, 2002, 2003

Domestic violence in developing countries has been an area of growing concern among researchers and activists in the women’s health and rights movements. An entrenched patriarchal system and a scarcity of labor market opportunities for women are seen to leave women at the mercy of their husbands. We would expect this situation to change over time with increased female participation in the labor market, but in fact the opposite pattern has been observed. Domestic violence and intrahousehold conflict have been observed to actually increase after the introduction of income-generation programs that are focused on women, for example, among Grameen Bank participants in Bangladesh. Our objective in this research project is to study the economic determinants of marital violence in South India and to make sense of the puzzling increase in intrahousehold conflict that accompanies a relative increase in female incomes. We use an interdisciplinary approach that combines the theory and methods of economics and sociology.

A major aim of our research is to estimate the causal effect of increases in female income on marital violence. To test for a causal relationship, researchers would ideally allow the male-female income differential to vary randomly across a group of households that are otherwise alike in every respect. Our study site consists of 23 estates of a tea plantation in Kerala, South India, and serves as an ideal setting for such a “natural experiment.” The 23 estates have enormous variation in rainfall and elevation, which in turn generates large differences in tea yields across the estates. Men and women are occupied in different tasks on the tea estate, so their earnings respond differently to the variation in tea yields. Exogenous climatic variation thus generates random variation in intrahousehold inequality across households. At the same time, one company owns all the estates. Structural similarities across estates, including identical access to health, education, and child care services, ensures a controlled environment. Using climatic conditions as a statistical instrument for male-female income differentials, we will be able to estimate the causal relationship between these differentials and marital violence. Our research improves on an enormous literature that has used variation in female-male income differentials, female education, and direct measures of women’s status without statistical instruments, to study the effect of female empowerment on household outcomes.

Using climatic conditions as a statistical instrument for male-female income differentials, we will be able to estimate the causal relationship between these differentials and marital violence.

This setting also affords us the opportunity to understand the process through which decision-making within the household changes as female incomes rise and the various forms that conflict may take. An additional component of our project includes an in-depth investigation of this process of social change using qualitative methodologies.

The subject of this research is extremely relevant at a time when income generation and empowerment efforts focused on women are being put into place throughout the developing world. We have spent many months in the field collecting a range of high-quality data sources, including tea company records and a survey of four thousand female workers between January and March 2003, which was funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Preliminary results show that approximately 48 percent of female workers have ever been beaten by their husbands. Data entry of the survey will be completed in summer 2003, and data analysis is set to begin in fall 2003. The qualitative component of the project is scheduled for summer 2004.

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