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Women during a protest rally to mark the International Women’s Day 2022 at Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos. Photo by Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Domestic violence and work status: which Nigerian women are most at risk

One in four women in Nigeria has experienced abuse from her intimate partner in her life. Globally, the figure is one in three women.

Research has shown that factors like a woman’s age, education, rural/urban residence and income influence her experience of intimate partner violence. Characteristics such as her partner’s alcohol consumption, employment and history of abuse also affect her experience.

The link between women’s economic resource ownership and intimate partner violence is a crucial one to investigate. One school of thought suggests that access to economic resources can protect women. As women earn more income or own more resources, they can contribute more towards the household, giving them higher bargaining power and a lower likelihood of domestic violence.

Another view is that as a woman becomes more economically independent, male partners may respond with violence to enforce their power and compensate for the threat to their traditional status as breadwinners within the household.

My study added another dimension to the debate: the role of women’s occupational prestige in their experience of intimate partner violence in Nigeria. I used relative occupational status as an indicator of bargaining power.

Nigeria is a patriarchal setting where men have higher social standing than women. I wanted to investigate whether role reversals between men and women were associated with domestic violence.

The associations between different forms of violence, occupational status and imbalances between spouses turned out to be quite complex.

I found that women in prestigious occupations have lower odds of experiencing spousal abuse than women in low-ranked occupations. On the other hand, women in more prestigious occupations than their partners have greater odds of experiencing violence. Women have greater odds of abuse if their male partners are in prestigious occupations.

In Nigeria, women’s labour market participation is rising. This gives them more status. Any move towards status equality appears to be a risk factor for women’s experience of abuse. Nigeria needs more legislation that criminalises domestic violence.

Comparing occupations and violence

I used the 2013 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey to analyse the relationship between occupation and women’s experience of intimate partner violence. The survey is a nationally representative sample of 38,948 women and 17,359 men aged 15–49. It covers rural and urban households all over Nigeria. The record includes information on women’s experience of violence by their male partners in the previous 12 months.

A quarter of women in the survey reported having experienced violence of any kind. Two percent had experienced all forms of violence: emotional, sexual, and physical.

To rank occupational prestige, I used an existing system which considers qualifications, manual versus non-manual skills and self-employment versus employment by others. The ranking system was revised slightly to take the Nigerian context into account. Professional, technical, managerial, and clerical occupations were ranked highest. Agricultural workers ranked lowest.

When I explored the associations between occupation and violence, I found that women who did not work were the least likely to experience abuse. Women working in agriculture were most likely to experience all forms of violence. Professional women were the next most likely to experience emotional abuse.

Aside from the women’s own occupations, I looked at those of their husbands, and at the differences between them.

Men in more prestigious occupations appear to be more violent to their wives compared to men in less prestigious occupations.

Women in occupations of similar rank to their partners were twice as likely to experience physical and emotional violence, compared to women ranked lower than their partners. Women in more prestigious jobs than their husbands were seven times more likely to experience physical and emotional violence, compared to women ranked lower than their husbands.

In a patriarchal society like Nigeria with ingrained gender roles, obvious status inconsistencies may create some embarrassment for husbands. Situations where the wife is a medical practitioner and the husband is not working, for example, or where the wife is an accountant and the husband is a trader, could be perceived as a threat.

Supportive interventions and laws

In Nigeria, women’s labour market participation is rising. It is not just the presence of status inconsistency that provokes violent tendencies of male partners. Any move towards status equality – being on the same level as male partners, or outranking them – appears to be a risk factor for abuse.

Interventions to protect vulnerable women – such as counselling – should meet specific needs and provide appropriate support.

One formal approach to altering behaviour is to enact appropriate legislation that penalises violence. For example, currently, only half of the 36 states in Nigeria have adopted (in various forms) the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, which aims to curb domestic violence.

Certain laws, grounded in cultural norms, continue to allow for wives to be beaten for the purpose of “correction”, as long as no long-lasting physical damage is done.

I would suggest that Nigerian society needs to reassess its ideas about gender and improve its legislation.

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