Interventions aimed at reducing intimate partner violence (IPV) may be less effective among women married at a young age than among other married women, according to secondary analysis of data from a randomized controlled trial assessing a combined economic empowerment and gender norms program conducted in rural Côte d’Ivoire between 2010 and 2012.1 Among female participants who had married at age 18 or older, those exposed to the full intervention—which involved gender dialogue discussion groups as well as a group savings program—were less likely than those exposed to only the group savings program to have experienced emotional IPV and economic abuse in the preceding year (odds ratios, 0.4 each); exposure to the gender dialogue discussion groups was also marginally associated with reduced odds of having experienced physical IPV, sexual IPV or both (0.5 each). Among women who had married before age 18, however, exposure to the gender dialogue discussion groups was associated with reduced odds of having experienced economic abuse in the past year (0.3), but not any form of IPV.

Previous research has shown that women who marry before age 18 are disproportionately affected by IPV and have elevated risks for poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes, but few studies have examined the effectiveness of interventions in reducing such risks. In this study, researchers analyzed data from a randomized controlled trial for which village savings and loan associations were established in 24 villages in Côte d’Ivoire; each association included 15–30 women, and enabled them to pool their funds, obtain loans for livelihood activities and receive shares from interest after loans were repaid. About half of saving and loan associations were then randomly selected to the intervention group to receive a gender norms component, which consisted of eight gender dialogue discussion group sessions for women and their male partners; sessions focused on gender inequality, the importance of nonviolence and women’s contributions to household functioning. Baseline and follow-up surveys in 2010 and 2012, respectively, measured past-year experience of physical (e.g., being hit, kicked or threatened with a weapon), sexual (i.e., forced to have sex) or emotional (e.g., being intimidated or threatened) IPV, as well as economic abuse (e.g., a partner’s refusal of money for necessities). Generalized linear regression analyses assessed associations between these measures and exposure to the gender dialogue groups, stratified by whether women had been married before age 18.

About 75% of women were farmers or small business owners, had no education and had four or more children. Three in 10 women had married before age 18. Greater proportions of women who had married before age 18 than of those who had married later had no education (83% vs. 70%), were Muslim (26% vs. 13%), were aged 18–24 (16% vs. 5%) or 25–34 (32% vs. 26%) and had a partner who was a farmer (90% vs. 80%). Twenty-two percent of women reported experiencing any physical or sexual IPV in the last year, 15% any physical violence, 12% any sexual violence, 44% any emotional violence, and 33% economic abuse. There were no differences in reported IPV or abuse by child marriage status.

Among women married before age 18, exposure to the gender dialogue discussion groups was associated with reduced odds of having experienced economic abuse in the previous year (odds ratio, 0.3), but was not found to be associated with any of the types of violence studied. Among women who had married at age 18 or older, exposure to the gender dialogue discussion groups was associated with decreased odds of reporting emotional violence or economic abuse in the past year (0.4 for each); in addition, exposure to the intervention was marginally associated with decreased odds of physical violence, sexual violence or both (0.5 each).

The researchers identified several limitations of their study: that it was not designed to assess intervention effects by child marriage status, its use of a convenience sample, the potential undersampling of women married before age 18 and the possibility of cohort effects. Nonetheless, they suggest that women who marry early may receive less benefit from economic and gender empowerment interventions than women who marry at a later age, and that their study “reinforces the benefits of delaying early marriage as a potential means of reducing women’s risk” for intimate partner violence. Moreover, the researchers believe that, “given the pervasiveness of child marriage in Côte d’Ivoire, there is an urgent need to develop and evaluate interventions to reduce [intimate partner violence] that are tailored to this large and highly vulnerable population.”
J. Thomas