The Political Economy of Violence against Women in Africa

The UN Economic Commission for Africa (2009:4) points out, ‘the scourge of violence against women in Africa particularly is still largely hidden’ due to assumptions that it is a private matter and/or an acceptable cultural norm, given women’s subordination to men and the lack of appropriate institutional responses and government support for victims and gender equality. 


Dr Jacqui True s Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences and an Associate Dean of Research at the Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Australia.

March 30th, 2015

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is one of the most egregious and persistent human rights violations that affects women and girls of all ages from every society, all classes, races, ethnicities, religions, immigrant statuses and sexualities in the world. The magnitude and scope of violence against women is only now receiving global attention. However, as the UN Economic Commission for Africa (2009: 4) points out, ‘the scourge of violence against women in Africa particularly is still largely hidden’ due to assumptions that it is a private matter and/or an acceptable cultural norm, given women’s subordination to men and the lack of appropriate institutional responses and government support for victims and gender equality. As such, VAWG remains uncosted and its impacts on African economies ignored or understated. 

Yet, women’s physical security and freedom from violence are inextricably linked to the material basis of relationships that govern the distribution and use of resources, entitlements and authority within the home, the community and national and transnational realms. Power operates not only through direct coercion but also through the structured relations of production and reproduction. 

Those who own and/or control wealth-generating property can directly or indirectly control the principal institutions that shape ideology, such as educational and religious establishments and the media…. [and] these can shape views in either gender-progressive or gender-retrogressive directions 

(Agarwal, 1994: 1459). 

Nowhere in the world do women share equal social and economic rights with men or the same access as men to these productive resources (Apodaca, 1998). Economic globalisation and development are creating new challenges for the realisation of these equal rights in Africa as well as some new opportunities for advancing women’s economic independence and gender equality. The proliferation of armed conflicts, often caused by struggles to control power and productive resources, has also setback efforts to prevent violence against women and promote women’s rights.

Political Economy Approach

VAWG, its causes and its consequences, remain poorly understood by many scholars, advocates and policymakers. Psychology, public health and criminal justice studies tend to focus on individual-level analysis and risk factors for perpetrators and victims. The broader political economic order, however, is frequently neglected in social science analyses of violence against women although social surveys of key demographic and social characteristics of VAWG victims and perpetrators strongly highlight gender inequalities. Political economy analysis directs our attention away from interpersonal relations and religious and cultural dynamics toward global and regional material structures as causes of violence and conflict such as gender-biased macroeconomic policies, supply-chains, labour markets and political norms. These structures are modifiable and, where they can be shown to directly and indirectly cause violence, policy changes could be devised to significantly reduce the incidence of VAWG. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2010: 26) states that we ‘need more research to identify modifiable factors to influence violence against women at community/society levels’ and that ‘policies to stop VAWG are based on little evidence-based information/knowledge’ (ibid: 62). 

Reconceptualising violence against women through a feminist political economy framework means transforming the underlying structures of socioeconomic inequality that affect women and men’s differential insecurity and vulnerability to violence and poverty. These gendered structures prevent women in particular from participating as equals with men in all aspects of public life. A feminist political economy perspective takes into account the material as well as cultural and normative basis of gender inequalities and insecurity including all forms of gender-based violence. With such a perspective it is possible to see that even while most VAWG is perpetrated by men, it is the globalised social and economic inequalities that make women and girls most vulnerable to violence and abuse within and across societies and less able to prevent and protect themselves from situations of violence and abuse at home, at work, in public spaces and when crossing borders. 

Equal Income, Land and Property Rights as Deterrents to Violence

What is the connection between poverty, wealth and violence against women? It is true that women of all income groups experience men’s violence yet, when women have access to productive resources and enjoy equal social and economic rights with men, they are less vulnerable to violence across all societies (True, 2009). Not surprisingly, countries that value women’s equal participation and representation and where there are fewer economic, social or political power differences between men and women there are also lower levels of VAWG (WHO, 2005). Gender-based structural inequalities affecting VAWG such as inequalities in inheritance and land rights, biased land reform and discrimination in employment and business may differ across countries according to their type of political economy and degree of integration with global markets. However, women are more able to protect themselves from violence and to leave violent homes and workplaces when they have a good socioeconomic and political status (True, 2012). 

The experience of conflict creates new economic demands on women, opening new markets and creating new opportunities, threats and dependencies with implications for women’s protection and participation. Many African conflicts involve competition over land and other natural resources and several implicate large transnational corporations in human rights violations. Indeed, sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, boys and men may be deployed specifically to dispossess individuals and communities from their land and to remove the agricultural labour force of a community (Turshen, 2000). Because women are responsible for the majority of agricultural work in a country, in some conflicts armed groups have attempted to stop women from being able to work, effectively cutting off the food supply of the enemy (ibid).

 Strategies for empowering women economically to give women greater autonomy in securing livelihoods, including through self-employment, collective income-generating arrangements within households and communities, formal employment and entrepreneurial market activity, have shown some of the best-evaluated outcomes in terms of reducing participating women’s future experience of violence (WHO, 2010). In two provinces of India, Agarwal and Panda (2007) found that if women own land or income-earning property their likelihood of experiencing domestic violence is reduced by 50 percent. The obverse is also true. In Kenya, where women own less than one percent of the land while performing 70 percent of the agricultural labour, ‘the denial of equal property rights has the effect of putting [them] at greater risk of poverty, disease, violence, and homelessness’ (Smith, Theano, Torbett & Toussaint, 2009: 41).

Vyas, Mbwambo and Heise (2014), in their study of women market traders in Dar es Salaam and Mbeya, Tanzania, found that women’s access to money has a positive effect on their lives and reduced their need to negotiate with male partners for money, a major source of conflict and trigger for violence. Similarly, Grabe, Grose and Dutt (2014) found that when rural women in Nicaragua and Tanzania own land, they gain power within their relationships and are less likely to experience violence. In their study, ‘women in both countries connected owning property to increased power and status within their communities and to having greater control within their relationships’ (ibid). Land and property rights appear to come with men’s right to use violence against women. Thus, once a woman becomes a property owner, she gains a range of other social and political rights. Among other things, there is evidence that these economic rights are a major deterrent to violence against women, levelling the playing field with men and allowing women to protect and depend upon themselves (Grabe et al., 2014).

 Effects of Globalisation, Economic Transition and Recession

Globalised economic cycles of boom and bust exacerbate gendered inequalities in societies and escalate the risk factors for violence against women. This includes mortgage foreclosures, austerity policies, job losses – especially in the state sector where women are disproportionately employed – financial and psychological stress affecting drug and alcohol abuse and poverty, which all make women and girls vulnerable to men’s violence (Agarwal, 1994; Grabe et al., 2014). 

Another way we see globalisation processes perpetuating violence against women is through men’s reactions to these processes and the loss of male entitlement they often bring about. Where neoliberal reforms open economies to global competition there may be increased opportunities for women to enter the labour market and gain economic independence. Firms in competitive, global markets may prefer to hire women over men where their labour is deemed ‘cheaper’ due to prevailing gender structures and ideologies (Boonzaier 2008, 2005). But the obverse of women’s economic empowerment is sometimes men’s economic disempowerment. For instance, as a result of the impact of global economic restructuring in South Africa, some men have experienced long-term unemployment and the loss of their previous status as breadwinner (Boonzaier 2008, 2005). They may be unable to find alternative employment that fulfils their visions of themselves as dominant breadwinners. These men admit to feelings of powerlessness and to using violence against their female partners to regain a sense of control (Boonzaier 2008, 2005). 

 In South Africa, where there is a history of state-sponsored violence as well as the current high poverty, unemployment, crime and deprivation rates, violence against women is highly prevalent. Rape, in particular, is extremely pervasive. In one epidemiological study, it has been argued that rape plays a crucial role in male peer group positioning and that it must be understood within the context of the limited number of other recreational opportunities available to poor, township and rural youth (Jewkes & Abrahams, 2002). ‘Competition over women has achieved overwhelming importance because it is one of the few available and affordable opportunities for entertainment and arenas where success may be achieved and self-esteem gained’ (Jewkes & Abrahams, 2002: 1239; see also Brown, Sorrell & Raffaeli, 2005). Relationships and the input of resources they require may not seem to be realistic options given the context of poverty, whereas rape and violence may be more readily deployed to achieve the same ends. 

Stella Resko’s (2010) survey of 2,341 single mothers in the United States in 2001 and 2003 found that men’s violence against women was correlated with length of unemployment but it was 41 percent less when the female partner was employed. There are, of course, different reasons for men’s perpetrating violence against women and the point is not to suggest that, because this was the finding in the US, it will necessarily apply to Southern Africa. However, the survey does provide evidence that the causes of violence against women are related to the changing gendered structures of the economy and that improving women’s economic position is one strategy for reducing violence (Resko, 2010).

Macroeconomic policies can also be seen as violent in their effects. They are devised disproportionately by Western, male elites and situate women in precarious forums of bodywork where they are frequently the subjects of abuse and exploitation. For example, for migrant women workers, vulnerability to violence is frequently part of the employment relationship due to the highly unequal power relations at work based on the combined oppressions of gender, class, nationality and ethnicity (Vyas et al., 2014). The denial of equal economic status and rights, political voice and access to public space and resources relative to men makes women especially vulnerable to men’s physical violence. In this respect, private sphere domestic violence is both a form of political violence and a precondition for more visible violence in the public sphere such as stranger gang rapes on public transport and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Another South African study of 15 women and their male partners involved in programmes for victims and perpetrators of intimate violence, connected men’s economic disempowerment to domestic violence against women (Boonzaier, 2005). Boonzaier’s (2005) study found that men react to the greater economic opportunities for women and rising male unemployment by attempting to maintain their hold on dominant forms of masculinity through the perpetration of violence. Interviews with men revealed that their ideas of ‘successful masculinity’ were linked to their ability to become or remain economic providers for the family. Men facing chronic unemployment described feeling powerless and employed this feeling as a justification for violence against women (Boonzaier, 2005).

 In other cases, the consequences of economic reform and tightened government budgets in Africa may not have been immediately visible but are concealed in the quiet transformation of households hit by foreclosures, loss of income, youth unemployment and out-of-work men (True, 2012). These are risk factors for domestic and family violence where women and children are most likely to be the victims and survivors. Indeed, there was a notable increase in reported domestic violence (largely perpetrated by men against women) fuelled by high levels of economic stress and instability and associated risky behaviours such as excessive alcohol and drug-taking in the US and Europe after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (True, 2012). When government austerity is imposed, marriage and divorce rates tend to decline, in short, more unhappy families stay together and fewer people choose to start new ones (ibid). 

Increased violence against women, alcoholism, depression and suicide are not inevitable effects of economic downturns but may be political choices by governments. To the extent that such recessions disenfranchise many populations and citizens, affecting the economic security, employment and financial stress of individuals and families and given what we know about the determinants of violent crime, including men’s violence against women, we can expect violence against women to increase without other mitigating measures (Resko, 2010; Vyas et al., 2014). If the World Bank is concerned that violence against women is a barrier to economic growth, then investing in policies that promote social and economic equality between women and men is crucial for the prevention of violence as well as for spurring economic recovery. 

Violent Effects of Conflict and Post-Conflict Recovery

Conflict and war often impoverish a country as it makes the trade-off between military spending and spending for social and economic development, which may create conditions for severe violence against women. They also normalise violence and spread it throughout the societies involved. For instance, state and group-sanctioned violence frequently celebrate masculine aggression and perpetuate impunity with regard to men’s violence against women (Farr et al., 2009; Kelly, 2000; Moser & Clark, 2001). It is by now well documented that sexual and physical violence against women increases as a direct result of armed conflict (ibid). The large-scale rape of women, for example, has been a military tactic in countless historical and recent conflicts. The causes of armed conflict are often linked with attempts to control economic resources such as oil, metals, diamonds, drugs or contested territorial boundaries. Violence against women may be one way to achieve this control and extraction of resources (Farr et al., 2009; Kelly, 2000; Moser & Clark, 2001).

Women and girls displaced by conflict have been subject to rape and sexual abuse, early and forced marriage and trafficking. What is less well known is the long-term impact of this violence on the welfare of women and girls in the post-conflict phase. The stigmatisation and sometimes even forced displacement of women who have been raped, for instance, often results in their impoverishment and in further violence against them. For example, in the Darfur region of Western Sudan, thousands of women were raped and tortured and lost their husbands and livelihoods as a result of the conflict (Human Rights Watch, 2008). These women and their families have become internally displaced persons vulnerable to on-going violence in camps and resettlement zones (UNFPA, 2007). Internally displaced women are especially vulnerable to violence as a result of their economic resources being stripped from them during the displacement and their consequent lack of access to social and economic resources. Once the conflict has ended, women who are repatriated often no longer have houses or land to return to due to their destruction, forced relocation to a different part of the country, discriminatory inheritance laws, lack of property titles and secondary occupants. Female internally displaced persons remain economically disadvantaged decades after the displacement (Human Rights Watch, 2008; UNFPA, 2007).

In conflict and post-conflict affected societies, men may feel themselves disempowered and unable to fulfil their duty to protect their families. Chris Dolan (2002: 57) argues that insufficient economic opportunities for men to provide for their families and live up to expectations of successful masculinity may encourage initial conflict and further violence. As in the case of unemployment, this can arouse men’s resentment and erupt in violence against women family members, especially if women are the economic providers (UNFPA, 2008). Indeed, women often become heads of households during and after conflict as men may be out fighting, killed or elect to leave the affected area in order to look for work elsewhere. Women who are left behind thus become primarily responsible for their family’s survival (UNFPA, 2008). Even when a political settlement has been achieved, however, organised crime may perpetuate political and gender-based violence (ibid). 

Some research suggests women can be empowered in post crisis situations and experience transformations in traditional gender roles as, for example, in Rwanda with its high proportion of women representatives in the National Parliament (Hughes, 2009). Certainly, there are opportunities for addressing endemic problems in society and improving the economic and social rights of citizens during the rebuilding phase but these opportunities often discriminate against women. For example, in the early phases of state-building it is common to designate mass employment opportunities to men such as road-building and housing construction, which typically offer quick employment to large numbers of men. However, mass employment opportunities for women that are culturally acceptable are not typically planned or implemented (Bernard et al., 2008). 

In post-conflict and transitional societies, soldiers who are no longer able to wield arms in public may use them as an expression of their power in the private realm in acts of violence against intimate partners or other family members (Farr, Myrttinen & Schnabel, 2009). The public reintegration of soldiers into peacetime civilian life often does not help with their adjustment to private family relationships destabilised by war. For example, during the war in Southern Sudan, daughters became economic bargaining chips, increasing forced and early marriage as well as rape within marriage and domestic violence (UNDF, 2010: 27). Childbearing was also considered a patriotic obligation for women in the struggle for self-determination (ibid). These gendered experiences and the pervasive gender-based violence have resulted in many men having a sense of entitlement to sexual services both inside and outside marriage after the end of conflict. 

Failure to address women’s social and economic needs and opportunities in post-conflict situations contributes to their poverty, material insecurity and vulnerability to violence as well as resulting in begging and prostitution, resorted to as a means of redressing poverty but creating further vulnerability to violence and trafficking. Ephgrave (2014) criticises the one-dimensional treatment of gender-based violence experienced by women during conflict at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Rwandan Gacaca court hearings. Women’s experiences of violence in both forums were reduced to the physical injury or the sexual violence inflicted upon them. They did not recognise the structural inequalities and various other human rights’ violations that women and girls suffered (Ephgrave, 2014). Moreover, narrow representations of women’s victimhood obscured women’s agency during conflict (including roles as perpetrators) (ibid). The invisibility and the continuum of domestic violence, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence exacerbate inequalities and marginalise women in reconstruction and state-building processes. This is despite the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda (consisting of seven Security Council resolutions) in which member states recognise the right of women to participate in peace building (UN Peacekeeping, n.d.).


Patterns of violence against women from the home to the transnational realm are structurally linked to patterns of global transformation instigated by economic, political and military forces. In Africa, we can see that destabilising global processes such as economic competition, neoliberal policies, armed conflict and post-conflict reconciliation efforts often reinforce existing gender inequalities and create new forms of marginalisation and vulnerability to violence.

Women’s experiences of physical violence and abuse are inextricable from their experiences of poverty, labour exploitation in liberalised sectors from limitations on their sexual and reproductive rights and from on-going control of their mobility by ideological actors in the family and the polity. As advocates and policymakers seeking to eliminate VAWG, we must address the structural gender inequalities that are the root causes of this problem, that is, if we wish to save more than one woman or girl at a time.


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