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It has often been assumed that improving women’s access to income-generating activities would lead automatically to more general empowerment, the theory being that an increased income would improve women’s “bargaining power” within the household. Some researchers believed that this increase in bargaining power would reduce the risk of intimate partner violence, while others believed it would have the opposite effect. Those trying to promote gender equality through economic empowerment initiatives face the vexing issue that their efforts may have unintended consequences, improving one dimension of women’s lives but undermining others.
Department of Pacific Affairs Senior Fellow, Associate Professor Richard Eves, has recently completed research undertaken as part of the multi-year project, Do No Harm: Understanding the Relationship between Women’s Economic Empowerment and Violence against Women in Melanesia, funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development. The project and was a collaboration between DPA and International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA).
In an effort to understand the realities women face as they attempt to overcome economic disadvantage, the research team led by Eves gathered detailed accounts from women, men and community leaders. Field research was undertaken in Solomon Islands and PNG, where 485 interviews were conducted. Eves remembers a particular case in the PNG highlands. A woman working at the market would have to come straight home after closing up shop to account for the income she had earned, unable to spend any of it, at the demand of her husband. Other cases in the highlands reveal how women were also subject to physical violence by their partners who thought they didn’t work hard enough at earning an income. “Women are subject to quite brutal forms of violence, quite unimaginable sorts of horrors,” Eves says.
“During the fieldwork, it became clear that many men tend to have a zero-sum power notion. They think any gains from women are a loss to them and therefore they resist it,” Eves says. But Eves has worked in PNG for many years now and has noticed a groundswell of change. Violence is less tolerated by communities, he observes, and that is an important shift.
The project recently culminated with workshops and briefings conducted in Honiara, Buka, Port Moresby, Goroka, Canberra and Melbourne at which the research findings and guidance materials, developed by IWDA, have been presented and discussed. The research has contributed to a better understanding of how to improve women’s economic agency and the security of their livelihoods without compromising their safety.
The full research reports are available here: