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Exactly seven months since the horrifying rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus, the Indian courts convicted four men of the brutal crime. By Indian standards, this was a speedy trial. Most rape trials last well over a decade, leaving the victims tired and disillusioned with a judicial system that is archaic, under-resourced, and insensitive to women.
Given this state of affairs, it is no surprise that only 4 out of 10 women find it worthwhile to even report instances of abuse, and that a 2012 survey by Thomson Reuters Foundation ranks India as the worst of the G-20 major economies for women. Crimes against women are often not reported because women must not only break the conservative mold of traditional Indian society and confront their attacker, they must also deal with insensitive police officials and administrators asking probing questions about the act itself.
The Delhi rape case was also exceptional in that the victim typified the modern Indian woman with aspirations of a good education, a career, and the hope of entering a profession that would raise her status in society. She was part of an India that has encouraged women to seek greater freedom to study, to travel, to work outside the home, and to meet their marriage partners in clubs, movie theaters, malls.
These circumstances have led many conservatives to argue that the liberalization of social norms is in fact triggering attacks against women. But recent research suggests that these opponents of modernization are wrong. In particular, there is solid evidence that the economic empowerment of women reduces their risk of becoming victims of violence.
Economists have long studied the issue of violence against women, particularly the domestic violence that occurs within households. One of the questions they have examined is whether women who are empowered – whether through employment, earnings, or wealth – are less likely to experience domestic violence. The answer isn’t immediately clear. On the one hand, women who have their own sources of income and wealth may be better able to stand up for their rights within the household. On the other hand, some husbands, fearing a threat to their own authority within the household, may retaliate against their empowered wives with violence.
A number of researchers have examined the data and found ambiguous results. While some find that there is a lower risk of domestic violence against women who work, earn more income or own greater wealth, others find an increase in domestic violence among women who work for pay.
The problem with many of these studies is that they merely uncover a correlation between economic empowerment and domestic violence; they do not establish that the former causes the latter. For example, a husband who is comfortable with his wife working is also going to be less likely to abuse her. In this case, it is the husband’s attitude that is the driving factor, not the economic empowerment of the wife.
One way to address this problem is through the use of a natural experiment, a setting in which different policies apply to different individuals. One such experiment comes from Indian inheritance law, which, until 2005, put daughters at a disadvantage relative to sons in inheriting their fathers’ ancestral property. A national-level amendment in 2005 removed the gender disparity in this law. However, prior to the national amendment, several states (Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka) enacted their own amendments to the law and granted daughters the same inheritance rights as sons. The state-level reforms only applied to women who were not married at the time the amendments were passed. Also, both the national law and the state-level amendments did not apply to Christians and Muslims.
This natural experiment has allowed researchers to study the impact of empowering women though equal inheritance rights. More specifically, researchers have been able to track how women who were affected by these state-level amendments – by virtue of their state of residence, religion, and date of marriage – have fared compared to women who were not. The state-level reforms are a good proxy for economic empowerment because women who benefit from equal inheritance rights are more likely to have independent wealth compared to those who do not.
In a recent study, we examined whether women who benefited from these state-level inheritance reforms were less likely to report being the victim of domestic violence. Using data from a detailed household survey – the National Family Health Survey – we found that this is indeed the case. In particular, women who were subject to the reforms were 2.5 percentage points less likely to report being abused compared to women who were not.
If economic empowerment is an important tool for reducing domestic violence, it is likely to be an important tool to address violence outside the home as well. Women who are more empowered are more likely to fight back against harassment and report abuse than women who are entirely dependent on their families for support. Empowered women are more likely to be able to walk away from households, workplaces, and other settings where they face abuse. Empowered women are more likely to come together to seek help and fight against abuse.
Following the Delhi rape case, protests broke out across the country. Thousands of people marched in the city of Kolkata, and women’s organizations demonstrated in Bangalore. Outside India, demonstrations were held in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It was a wake-up call for women all over the region who stood up to demand stricter laws targeting crime against women, improved handling of rape cases, and harsher penalties for those convicted.
Prior to her death, the Delhi rape case victim provided the testimony that sealed the fate of her attackers. In doing so, she gave a voice to the millions of victims who silently face abuse, inside and outside the homes, and are unable to fight for themselves. Delhi police registered 1,036 complaints of rape through August 15 of this year, more than double the number of cases reported during the same period in 2012. Police also received 2,267 complaints of molestation through August 15, nearly six times the 381 reported during the same period last year. This rise in reporting has happened because more and more women are seeing freedom as their right in a modern India.
This is the new India, the empowered India. It’s time to embrace it.
Aparna Mathur and Sita Slavov are resident scholars in Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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