Of geniuses, violence, and girls

Today is a pretty special day. I woke up this morning to emails and tweets alerting me that one of my favorite people, a senior scholar whom I feel so lucky to have met and been mentored by and to call a friend, won a MacArthur genius grant. I am of the firm belief that there is no one more deserving. So much of my own work has bits of Betsy in it and I know we’re all so excited to see what she does next.

I also got word this morning that one of my staff from Nyarugusu gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. After several miscarriages and almost losing her life in a previous pregnancy, all are healthy and happy, and I’m bursting with joy for them.

For all these reasons, plus it’s International Day of the Girl, it seems like a particularly appropriate time to share a paper that is forthcoming in JDS, written with my colleague and dear friend, Shatanjaya Dasgupta: Paying for Violence? Spousal Abuse and Son Preference in India.

The abstract is below, but the paper rests on a few key ideas:

  1. Son preference in India is well-documented and leads to disadvantages for girls, including in nutritional status.
  2. In the data, girls tend to be worse off than boys in India on average. Kids of any gender in families with parents reporting domestic violence or spousal abuse tend to be worse off than kids in families where it’s not reported.
  3. But, and here’s the kicker, girls in families where DV is reported are better off than the boys in those families, conditioning on parents’ stated preferences for boy and girl children.
  4. Models of domestic violence in economics have sometimes tried to show how interpersonal violence can be used instrumentally, by the abuser as a form of punishment, or by the abused who accepts abuse in exchange for enacting their own preferences.

Ultimately, we ask whether a model of spousal abuse can explain how mothers who want to give their children more equal treatment or even favor girls accept abuse in exchange for enacting those preferences. This “paying for violence” shows up in children’s nutritional status. We even wrote a (toy) model.

Guys, *I* wrote a model! (I’m pretty proud of myself).

The data are a bit sparse and we lack strong causal identification, but the puzzle itself is interesting and we think our answer is plausible, that domestic violence can have differential effects on children when mediated by parental preferences. It’s important to note that we’re not advocating domestic violence as a tool to improve girls’ lots, but it is worth thinking about, and studying further, how marginalized and abused invidviduals cope and carve out space for themselves to act in the face of adversity.

We find a puzzling correlation in the data on domestic violence and children’s outcomes in India. Using the 2005–2006 National Family and Health Survey, we see that girls in families experiencing spousal violence are less worse off than boys when only fathers report a son preference while the gender bias reverses when only mothers report having a son preference. To shed light on the puzzle in the data, we present a non- cooperative theoretical framework based in economic theories of domestic violence, whereby differing parental son preference and bargaining over investments in girl and boy children potentially explains the observed relationship.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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