Academic journal article International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health

Women's Autonomy and Intimate Partner Violence in Ghana

Academic journal article International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health

Women's Autonomy and Intimate Partner Violence in Ghana

Article excerpt

Evidence suggests that intimate partner violence is common among Ghanaian women; one-third of women of reproductive age report having experienced physical violence and one-fifth report having experienced sexual violence. (1-3) This is troubling, given that studies show intimate partner violence has deleterious short-term and long-term effects on women's lives. (4-7) For instance, women who experience intimate partner violence are more likely to report physical or mental health problems than those who do not experience such violence. (5-7) There are sexual health implications as well--for instance, victimized women are less likely than others to use contraceptives; they are also more likely to have mistimed and unwanted pregnancies and to have HIV or other STIs. (8-11)

Some studies suggest that at the macro level, intimate partner violence--if not reduced or completely eliminated--could hinder or erode gains made toward gender equity and equality, especially in developing countries in which the structures of patriarchy are entrenched. (12,13) In other words, intimate partner violence might prevent women from expressing themselves in ways that enhance their social and economic well-being, jeopardizing their ability to contribute meaningfully to their family and to their community and society more generally. This leads some to propose that reducing intimate partner violence might empower women (and vice versa). (8)

Studies have confirmed the role of women's autonomy in increasing contraceptive use, determining fertility outcomes, and improving maternal, infant and child health in Sub-Saharan Africa. (14-16) However, autonomy's relationship to intimate partner violence is not so clear. First, the existing literature is largely limited to studies from South Asia, where the sociocultural norms of autonomy and violence differ from those in other parts of the developing world. To date, few studies have examined the autonomy-intimate partner violence relationship in Sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana. Second, those few studies have focused on individual autonomy and rarely explored autonomy at the community level, which is arguably an important proxy for gender equality. Third, findings on the links between autonomy and intimate partner violence risk have been inconclusive. For instance, while some studies have concluded that women's autonomy is associated with lower risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, (817) others have found that greater autonomy is associated with increased likelihood of experiencing such violence. (8,17-19) In other settings, researchers have found no association between women's autonomy and intimate partner violence. (20)

To contribute to the debate and to fill some important research gaps, this article explores the relationship between each of three types of women's autonomy--economic decision making, family planning decision making and sexual autonomy--at the individual level and four dimensions of intimate partner violence--physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence--using data collected from women in Ghana. It also examines the associations between community-level autonomy and Ghanaian women's risk of experiencing intimate partner violence.

Conceptual and Empirical Considerations

Women's autonomy has long been a major theme in sociology and demography. Some conceptualize a woman's autonomy in a general way, as the ability to obtain information and use it in her decisions about her private life, her partners and her immediate environment. (21,22) Others use the concept to refer more specifically to a woman's ability to access and exert control over economic, material and social resources alone or in collaboration with her husband. (5,23-25) In any case, the central themes are control and the ability to make independent decisions.

Past studies have often used the terms women's status, women's empowerment and women's autonomy interchangeably. …

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