07 January 2020

Domestic Violence and Workfare in India

Nayantara Sarma devotes a chapter of her recent PhD thesis in Development Economics to domestic violence and workfare in India, focussing on the social health issue of spousal abuse and its link with household income shocks. She exploits the phased implementation of India’s workfare programme to find that the programme mediates the effect of adverse rainfall shocks on domestic violence. Interview.

What drove you to study domestic violence and workfare in India?

Since the December 2012 gang rape of a young girl in New Delhi, the domestic and international media has frequently focused on women’s safety in India. There was justifiably a lot of outrage and protests among university students and residents of Delhi following the incident. While that created a spark, women’s safety has always been an issue in India. The most common crime against women occurs in their own homes in the form of domestic violence. As a student of economics, I wanted to study its economic underpinnings.

How do you formulate your research questions and what methodology do you use?

Existing research shows that economic shocks are more acutely felt by women and other marginalised members of the household (Miguel 2005; Sekhri and Storeygard 2014). When a household experiences a shock, resources may be unduly denied them or dominant members may extract a surplus from them. This often takes the form of higher or additional demands for dowry and violence is a way of exerting such pressures. In India, where most of the population is engaged in agriculture, inadequate rainfall acts as a negative income shock. 

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) guarantees all rural households 100 days of employment and was implemented in three phases across the districts of India. Recent work by Fetzer (2014) and Gehrke (2017) highlights NREGA’s role in reducing the Maoist conflict and boosting crop diversification by acting as a form of insurance against income shocks. My main research question asks what the impact of India’s employment guarantee act is on intrahousehold relations, specifically domestic violence. I use a difference-in-differences technique to compare how the relationship between droughts and reported incidents of domestic violence changes due to implementation of NREGA.

What are your major findings?

First, I confirm earlier research that adverse rainfall shocks are indeed correlated with higher reported incidences of domestic violence. Second, I find that this relationship becomes muted once NREGA is introduced at the district level. This finding holds particularly for dry weather shocks during agricultural months and not for other crimes against women – such as rape, kidnapping, dowry deaths, harassment – which don’t have the same within-household dynamics. The results are consistent using administrative data at the district level as well as self-reported data at the household level. 

Overall, my findings give evidence to NREGA’s role as a form of social insurance that offers agrarian households an alternative during weather shocks and lean months. Since the brunt of income shocks is often felt by women, the act also mediates the effect on them occurring as spousal violence. 

Women’s participation in the labour force is around 25 percent in India and indicates a declining trend. However, participation in the NREGA schemes is above 50 percent as the act mandates wage equality, proximity to the household and childcare. I find that NREGA led to improvements in women’s freedom of mobility but limited improvements in their say in household decisions. This is similar to other studies on the slow-moving nature of gender norms. 

Can you give an example of a topical issue on which your chapter might help shed a new light?

India, along with other countries, is considering different forms of social protection. Universal basic income and other forms of cash transfers are some of the options. My paper highlights the importance of considering the proximate gender or intrahousehold impacts in addition to the immediate labour market and economic impacts of these social protection instruments.

What are you doing now?

Currently, I am working at the World Bank with the South Asia Chief Economist’s Office. My work includes research on topics of gender and inequality in the region. 

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Nayantara Sarma defended her PhD thesis in Development Economics in October 2019. Professor Martina Viarengo presided the committee, which included Professor Jean-Louis Arcand, thesis director, Professor David Sylvan, internal reader, and Mr Shantayanan Devarajan, Senior Director for Development Economics (DEC) at The World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Sarma, Nayantara. “Essays in Development Economics.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Good to know: the PhD thesis is available to members of the Graduate Institute via this page of the repository.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from a picture by akilash sooravally/