The huge global cost of domestic violence

Bjørn Lomborg
The cost of domestic violence adds up to an astonishing 5.2 percent of global GDP each year. 
Bjørn Lomborg

Domestic violence costs the world 25 times more than war and terrorism, according to research conducted by James Fearon of Stanford University and Anke Hoeffler of Oxford University on behalf of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

By looking at different kinds of violence, Fearon and Hoeffler find that the global costs of conflict — including the economic toll of deaths from wars and terrorism, refugee-related outlays, and general pecuniary damage — add up to around 0.2 percent of global GDP each year.

That figure is dwarfed by domestic violence. The cost of domestic violence adds up to an astonishing 5.2 percent of global GDP each year. Nevertheless, the amount of research and funding directed at solving the problem of domestic violence is tiny compared to what is spent in pursuit of international peace.

In recent years, domestic violence has come into sharper focus in India, where shocking stories of extreme brutality have made headlines around the world. Because India is home to approximately one-fifth of the global population, finding scalable solutions to the problem there could have far-reaching implications for the rest of world.

Like many countries, India’s gender inequalities are deeply entrenched. Yet, given the sheer size of its population, any meaningful reduction in domestic violence could transform millions of lives for generations to come.

The most recent National Family Health Survey conducted in India showed that 29 percent of married women aged 15-49 had experienced spousal physical or sexual violence. That means that millions of Indian women will likely suffer domestic violence this year alone.

However, among the various approaches to tackling domestic violence, very few are backed by empirical evidence of effectiveness.

Some researchers have identified two proven approaches that involve not just a safety-net response to domestic violence, but also efforts to change public attitudes.

One approach is based on the SASA! project, which works with entire communities to raise awareness about how men’s use of power over women can both fuel violence against women and raise HIV/AIDS rates. SASA! shows how individual communities themselves can reduce the social acceptability of violence.

The other intervention, which has proved effective in South Africa, combines microfinance loans to women with training about domestic violence, gender norms, sexuality, and women’s rights. While microfinance ensures that women have the practical means to support themselves, the additional training furnishes them with the means to improve their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Many benefits

Based on the evidence, some researchers find that these models could be adapted for Andhra Pradesh in India, where 1.7 million women aged 15-59 live below the poverty line and have been in a partnership within the past year. (Domestic violence affects women of every income level, but these programs’ particular focus is on lower-income women.) The total cost to administer these programs would be US$23.5 million and US$19.5 million, respectively.

Extrapolating from the results of a self-reported survey suggests that more than 500,000 of these 1.7 million women will be assaulted by a partner each year.

Now, consider that both of the programs in question have been shown to reduce domestic violence by around 55 percent, and that the benefits are estimated to last at least four years. Either program on its own could save more than ten lives each year, while preventing a far greater number of physical injuries.

Moreover, the costs of abuse do not stop there. Surveys show that each domestic assault incapacitates a woman for an average of around 5.5 days. The economic costs of such violence, then, can be estimated by adding up the loss of paid work, along with the value of unpaid domestic work and free time.

Using this approach, researchers show that reaching those 1.7 million women in Andhra Pradesh could create total benefits worth about US$550 million. Each dollar spent would produce more than US$27 worth of social benefits.

The evidence also indicates that many other countries could learn from Andhra Pradesh’s experience. Future generations of women and girls would benefit, and so would the entire economy.

Bjørn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018. www.project-syndicate.org

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