The Influence of Rural Women’s Autonomy on Marital Violence in Four Indian States

There is evidence that women in India who have more education than their husbands, who earn more, or who are the sole earners in their families have a higher likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) than women who are not employed or who are less educated than their spouse. However, recent Population Council research found women’s autonomy to be correlated with less IPV in some regions.

Three researchers at the Population Council in India, Shagun Sabarwal, K. G. Santhya, and Shireen J. Jejeebhoy, investigated the relationship between rural women’s autonomy and their experience of IPV in four Indian states (Bihar and Jharkhand in the north and Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu in the south). The study is believed to be the first to prospectively examine this relationship in regions characterized by varying levels of gender equity. Bihar and Jharkhand are more conservative and patriarchal; Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are more egalitarian. The study also examined the relationship between changes in women’s autonomy over time and their experiences of IPV. (Past studies have used cross-sectional data, which cannot evaluate such changes over time.)

For this study, Council researchers reviewed data from two linked studies: the National Family Health Survey-2 (NFHS-2), a nationally representative population-based survey conducted during 1998–1999, and a follow-up study of women interviewed in NFHS-2 in Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu carried out during 2002–2003.

The researchers focused on three dimensions of autonomy: financial autonomy, freedom of movement, and household decision-making among a sample of 4,904 rural women. A similar set of questions was used to assess the extent of women’s autonomy at baseline and at follow-up, including the following:

  • For financial autonomy, one item was measured: whether women were allowed to have money set aside for them to use as they wished.
  • For freedom of movement, two items were measured: whether women needed permission to (a) go to the market and (b) visit friends or relatives.
  • For household decision-making autonomy, three items were considered: whether women made decisions on the following (a) seeking health care for themselves, (b) the purchase of jewelry, and (c) visiting relatives/friends. Women who reported independent say in decisions related to at least one of the three topics were considered to have decision-making autonomy.

The researchers controlled for a number of background variables, including religion, educational level, wealth status at baseline, and change in wealth status from baseline to follow-up—as well as variables specific to the Indian context, such as caste.

Key Findings

The researchers’ analysis revealed that the effects of women’s autonomy on their experience of violence varied according to region of residence. For example, for respondents residing in Maharahstra and Tamil Nadu, in the southern region of India, where gender relations are less hierarchical and more egalitarian, researchers found a strong protective relationship between women’s financial autonomy and marital violence. No such effects were seen among sample subjects residing in Bihar and Jharkand, in the northern part of the country, which is characterized by greater gender inequality.

The study’s authors posit that in comparison with the southern states, even financially autonomous women in those northern states have limited capacity to (a) challenge the acceptability of partner violence, (b) expect or receive better treatment from partners, or (c) find social support that can potentially prevent violence from their partner.

The authors strongly recommend implementing strategies and interventions to protect women, such as providing shelters and support groups and making legal and psychological counseling more widely available. They recognize and support the importance of further enhancing the conditions for women to attain greater autonomy and to change norms and laws that keep them at risk for violence at the hands of their partners.

“More focused efforts are needed to enhance married women’s agency, mitigate their social disadvantage, and encourage savings among women,” said Santhya. “Equally important are efforts to raise awareness among women about their rights and enhance their ability to challenge existing gender norms.”


Shagun Sabarwal, K. G. Santhya, and Shireen J. Jejeebhoy. 2013. “Women’s autonomy and experience of physical violence within marriage in rural India: Evidence from a prospective study,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. doi: 10.1177/0886260513505144