Published on Let's Talk Development

Using the law to protect women from violence: Does it work?

Scales of justice and books Scales of justice and books

In an influential article published nearly three decades ago, Amartya Sen noted that over 100 million women were missing. Despite a life expectancy advantage that women had over men in every age group, in many parts of the world the ratio of women to men is skewed sharply in favor of men. The importance of this topic has recently been amplified. The COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed an increase in domestic violence as women shelter at home (Aguero, 2021; Leslie & Wilson, 2020). Calls to helplines have risen while it has become more difficult to access legal resources as significant delays have hit overburdened legal systems. However, in the midst of all this, we wanted to explore a larger question– do laws have  an impact on curtailing domestic violence?

The true cost of domestic violence is immeasurable, and encompasses physical and mental consequences that can reverberate for a very long time. There have been attempts to quantify these effects. Anderson and Ray (2010) report that excess female deaths from “injuries”— in part resulting from domestic violence—were extremely high in India in 2000, equaling 225,000. Beleche (2019) finds that across provinces in Mexico, legislation criminalizing domestic violence is associated with a significant reduction in suicide rates among women. The economic cost of domestic violence has been estimated to be about $4.4 trillion, or 5.2%, of global GDP, a vast sum by any measure.

Can domestic violence legislation protect women? We look at this question in our recent study that explores the relationship between the presence of domestic violence legislation and the female-to-male mortality ratio across 159 economies spanning almost two and a half  decades - between 1990 and 2014. We use data on domestic violence legislation from the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (WBL) project. Following the UN definition, WBL defines domestic violence to include physical violence, emotional or psychological violence, sexual violence, or financial or economic violence. Legislation that does not provide for sanctions or orders of protection against domestic violence is not considered to satisfy the criteria of having domestic violence legislation.

The data is revealing in two important ways. First, as recently as 1990 there were only 4 countries in the sample analyzed that had passed some form of legislation protecting women from domestic violence. This is a sobering fact considering that parliaments in many countries had been legislating for well over a century and protecting women was obviously not seen as a top legislative priority. Second, and more encouragingly, the number of countries adopting such legislation expanded rapidly and had reached 89 by 2014. This is possibly partly due to peer pressure and the adoption of various UN Conventions by a growing number of countries.

Number of Countries with Domestic Violence Legislation

Note: Only countries in sample of study included

The conceptual relationship between domestic violence legislation and domestic violence is intuitive, but there are practical challenges. Women with more resources tend to have better options outside of abusive partnerships and are therefore more likely to leave violent partners. Building on this insight, the intra-household bargaining model argues that women with better outside options relative to men have higher “threat points” that enable them to credibly threaten to leave partners and therefore essentially bargain for less violence. We posit that domestic violence legislation improves women's threat point thereby lowering domestic violence and women's mortality relative to men. However, this is only likely if laws are enforced, or there is a credible due process where one can find recourse in the judicial system. However, there are theories that suggest the opposite, with greater autonomy for women leading to greater domestic violence. For instance, Eswaran and Malhotra (2011) find some evidence from evolutionary theory whereby greater female autonomy leads to “paternity uncertainty” that triggers spousal insecurity and jealousy and, thereby, violence as a response. However, by raising the cost of inflicting violence, legislation against domestic violence could still curtail violence against women arising from these forms of male insecurity.

We find that domestic violence legislation matters. According to our most conservative baseline estimate, domestic violence legislation is associated with a decrease in women-to-men adult mortality ratio by about 2.27% of its mean value. This translates into hundreds of thousands of women´s lives saved. One of the main challenges we faced is the lack of domestic violence data. This information is rarely collected and when collected, extremely under-reported. Thus, consistent with our holistic approach, we opted for mortality data given the breadth of coverage. We complement our findings by exploring intimate partner violence data from the WHO for 73 countries, available for a single year for a country varying between 2000 and 2014. We confirm our finding that domestic violence legislation is correlated with lower intimate partner violence.

Uncovering causal estimates with cross-country panel data is challenging. We control for a plethora of factors in our estimations, including the level of development, economic growth, ratios of women-to-men labor force participation and education achievement, proxies for health, as well as fertility rates. We also account for the quality of institutions, the political empowerment of women, discriminatory laws, and civil conflict. We also allow for the possibility of the implementation of laws at one point in time to have an effect further into the future.  Finally, we analyze the role that conventions on gender violence, such as the convention of Bélem do Pará and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, have had in reforming laws to improve our estimates (technically known by economists as instrumental variables).  In other words, we push the imperfect data we have to its furthest limits to make the crucial point – domestic violence legislation is effective in many diverse contexts.

Women make up about half of the world's population. Laws and institutions that improve women’s well-being warrant attention and priority.  Our research indicates that the presence of domestic violence legislation may have saved many lives of women—perhaps millions over the period covered by our analysis. This is a worthy achievement on its own that is also likely to be accompanied with economic benefits. Of course, domestic violence legislation is not the complete story and should be employed as one among many efforts to protect women. Over time, laws that aim to deter undesirable behaviors or to reinforce positive outcomes contribute to change social norms and are, therefore an important part of the overall strategy to save lives.


Asif Islam

Senior Economist, Office of the Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa Region, The World Bank

Augusto Lopez-Claros

Executive Director of the Global Governance Forum

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