In rural Bangladesh, a married woman's risk of experiencing domestic violence is associated with her individual autonomy, as well as the autonomy of women within her community.1 In the more culturally conservative of two study areas, women who had been a member of a credit group for less than two years were more likely than nonmembers to report current physical abuse (odds ratio, 1.3), and the greater a woman's autonomy, the higher her odds of being abused (1.6). However, in the less culturally conservative area, the proportion of women in a community participating in a credit group and female autonomy at the community level were linked to a reduced risk of domestic violence.

Using data from a 1993 family planning survey of 10,368 currently married women aged 15-49 living in Sirajgonj and Jessore, researchers examined the relationship between women's status and current domestic violence--defined as beating by their husband or his family. Indicators of women's status at the individual level were membership in a savings and credit group and an autonomy score based on women's responses to five questions about their mobility, familial decision-making power and control of resources. Community-level indicators included the proportion of women in the community who belonged to a credit group and the mean female autonomy score. Multivariate logistic regression analyses controlled for the study area; number of living sons; woman's age, religion and education; husband's education; land ownership; family structure; and community level of female education.

Of the women surveyed, 42% reported current physical abuse--47% in Sirajgonj and 39% in Jessore. The proportion of women who had been abused exceeded 50% in about one-half of the communities in Sirajgonj, compared with only one-fifth of communities in Jessore. Nine in 10 women who had experienced physical violence said that attacks were occasional, whereas one in 10 said they were frequent.

Multilevel logistic regression analysis of combined data from the two areas revealed that women in their 20s and Muslims had a significantly higher risk of physical abuse than did women younger than 20 and non-Muslims, respectively. The risk was reduced if a woman's husband had at least six years of schooling, if she had received at least some schooling and if she belonged to an extended family; also, the greater the household's land holdings, the greater the reduction in domestic violence. Furthermore, a woman's level of autonomy had a positive association with physical violence, whereas the proportion of women in a community belonging to a credit group and a community's average level of female autonomy showed a negative association.

According to the researchers, Sirajgonj is often geographically isolated because of flooding and poor road and communication systems, and it is more culturally conservative than Jessore, which lies next to and trades with India. Compared with women in Sirajgonj, where purdah is strictly followed, women in Jessore more commonly said they had been to a market in the past six months (33% vs. 20%), were not Muslim (19% vs. 3%), had received schooling (42% vs. 29%) and were married to men who had received schooling (58% vs. 38%). Moreover, a higher proportion of women in Sirajgonj than of women in Jessore reported not having permission to talk to male nonrelatives (23% vs. 14%).

When data from the two study areas were analyzed separately, women's education, household land ownership and having an extended rather than nuclear family were associated with a reduction in physical violence in both areas. In Jessore, age, religion and husband's education showed associations similar to those in the combined analysis. However, only in Sirajgonj were individual-level status indicators--a woman's membership in a credit group for less than two years and her level of autonomy--positively linked to abuse (odds ratios, 1.3 and 1.6, respectively). In contrast, community-level factors were significant only in Jessore, where an increase in the prevalence of credit group membership and an increase in average level of female autonomy reduced the risk of domestic violence.

The investigators suggest that in the conservative setting of Sirajgonj, an increase in female autonomy has a "destabilizing effect" on the relationship between a woman and her husband or his family, thereby increasing the risk of domestic violence. By comparison, in the less conservative district of Jessore--where changes in gender relations may already be underway, the researchers note--an increase in overall autonomy among women and membership in credit groups may act to strengthen women's solidarity, thereby helping to discourage husbands from resorting to violence in the home. The researchers conclude that in rural Bangladesh, "the effects of individual and contextual aspects of women's empowerment on violence vary significantly according to sociocultural conditions."--T. Lane


1. Koenig MA et al., Women's status and domestic violence in rural Bangladesh: individual- and community-level effects, Demography, 2003, 40(2):269-288.