Key Findings from a Women’s World Banking Literature Review Exploring the Connection

Many of us who work to advance women’s access to and use of financial services do so to improve women’s economic empowerment. A clear indicator of women’s lack of empowerment is her exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV). However, while there is a growing body of literature on the link between financial inclusion and different aspects of women’s economic empowerment, there is still little empirical evidence to understand the link between financial inclusion and the incidence of IPV.

While evidence in our sector is nascent, what can we learn from research thus far on how to conceptualize the relationship between financial inclusion and IPV?

Building off Buller and authors’ 2018 review of cash transfers and IPV, a few pathways emerge through which greater financial inclusion could enable a women to avoid or recover from experiencing IPV. Greater access to and use of financial services could:

  • Strengthen her exit option (the resources to support herself outside the relationship), thereby increasing her ability to leave the relationship or present a credible threat to leave
  • Enhance her bargaining power within a relationship (for example, by threatening to withhold economic resources from her partner) and increase her ability to assert her preferences and realize her goals
  • Elevate her status within the household and community, who respect and value her more in light of the economic resources she controls
  • Increase the economic security of the household, thereby reducing intrahousehold stress and conflict
  • Increase her access to emergency funds to facilitate an urgent escape from violence, immediate protection and shelter, and/or legal fees
  • Expand women’s ability to choose an intimate partner and/or choose not to be in a partnership

Other aspects of how financial services are delivered could also have implications for IPV, particularly group membership. Women’s participation in groups such as self-help groups or village savings and loans associations might reduce the incidence of IPV, as abusive partners may be less likely to perpetrate physical violence knowing injuries may be seen by people outside the home. In addition, these groups can help shift women’s views about the acceptability of violence and provide important emotional and tactical support in response to violence. Economic interventions may be more effective at reducing IPV when combined with gender transformative initiatives that spur critical reflection and shifts in gender norms and dynamics—and in many cases, it is strategic to include men in these discussions.

There is rightful concern that women’s increased use of financial services could increase risk of IPV, especially when these shifts in power are perceived as threatening patriarchal norms and control. In a study in Bangalore, India, for example, women who joined the workforce during the study period faced 80 percent higher odds of experiencing IPV than those who remained unemployed. Interestingly, when husbands faced greater employment instability, women experienced an increased risk of violence. While there is no empirical evidence that microfinance causes IPV (adverse IPV impacts have only been found in associational studies), it is still crucial that financial service providers and their partners become aware of the risks of IPV and take measures to prevent and monitor IPV.

The relationship between IPV and financial inclusion could also work in the opposite direction. IPV is not only a potential outcome but also a factor influencing whether women seek out new financial services and economic autonomy. Anticipating IPV has been suggested to discourage women from doing anything that might challenge traditional gender norms—in some contexts, women may avoid adopting new financial services out of fear of their partner’s reaction.

In 2015, Women’s World Banking conducted research in Colombia among an at-risk group of low-income women, to better understand the women’s role in the household and how money plays into the dynamics at home. Among the study ojectives was to investigate whether access to individual savings accounts could lead to greater financial security and subsequently affect other well-being indicators. Qualitative research findings suggested that if a woman who can save safely in a bank is able to build enough financial security, she can increase her sense of independence and ultimately empower herself to change her life for the better. As part of the project, Women’s World Banking conducted a literature review of financial inclusion projects that also examined the incidence of IPV. More qualitative and quantitative research however is needed to further explore the implications of access to savings on financial security and IPV.

While the evidence is not complete, laying out these potential pathways help us to anticipate in what ways our financial services interventions might affect IPV, and vice versa. They show us how women may use financial services in different ways over the life cycle to avoid, prevent, and escape the threat of IPV, and they highlight how certain features of financial inclusion may matter in different contexts. For example, confidentiality may be critical to help women avoid IPV in some cases, but less useful in other contexts where women’s visible access to financial resources would increase her status. Liquidity may be very important for women’s emergency access to funds, though there may be tradeoffs with building savings habits.

These linkages call for an increased awareness of financial services providers on how their service affect and are affected by household power dynamics and community gender norms in the given context where they work. Financial service providers’ ways of engaging with women clients (group meetings, trainings, and so on) and with others in the community (community outreach, marketing campaigns) could be critical spaces for shifting community gender norms around the use of financial services. Not only might this reduce the risk of violence, such efforts could potentially increase women’s uptake of financial services. Providers can also partner with NGOs and government agencies to assist in responding to IPV, through providing women referrals to emergency and family support services. Finally, these pathways suggest initial hypotheses for how we might both monitor and evaluate our financial services interventions and gather more evidence to better understand this complex relationship.