In 2016, the United Nations estimated that the global cost of violence against women reached a staggering US$1.5 trillion (about the size of the Canadian economy), equivalent to about 2% of the world's GDP.
While, of course, violence against women(VAW) has an unimaginable psychological and physical impact on women, it exacts a profound toil on the broader economy as well, perpetuating a cycle of underdevelopment, undermining progress, and further exasperating acts of gender-based violence in the future.
The cost and scale of gender-based violence
Gender-based violence is a pervasive global issue that affects the lives of countless women. Recent studies reveal the staggering scale and far-reaching consequences of this deeply rooted problem on individuals and entire economies.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one in three women worldwide experiences abuse, coercion into sex, or violence at the hands of an intimate partner during her lifetime.
In terms of harassment, the situation is not any better. The number of females suffering from public harassment ranges from 35% of all females in Germany to 99% in Cairo, Egypt.
The burden of gender-based violence is not confined to personal pain; it inflicts significant social and economic costs. Women and their families bear the heaviest load, experiencing shame, stigma, and hindrances in education, employment, civic engagement, and resource access. These obstacles exacerbate poverty and inequality, undermining progress towards gender equality.
Even though the human cost is unbound, the economic cost of GBV can be quantified with rigorous metrics. Like the statistics we opened with, GBV costs the world 2% of its GDP every year, with some low-income countries having to bear the brunt of it.
Studies conducted in various regions worldwide emphasise the far-reaching effects of GBV on economic growth. In Bangladesh, domestic violence alone cost US$2.3 billion, equivalent to 2.1% of GDP in 2010, nearly equaling the entire health and nutrition budget for the country that year.
On the other hand, the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year in the United States. Survivors of intimate partner violence lose a total of 8.0 million days of paid work each year there. Additionally, workplace harassment and stress contribute to losses estimated at 1% to 3.5% of GDP across various countries.
GBV has profound implications for women's participation in public life. A study by ActionAid India revealed that 40% of women surveyed reported being sexually harassed in public places, causing 33% to avoid going out altogether. This highlights how deeply entrenched societal norms and attitudes perpetuate violence against women and limit their participation in society.
The World Bank is actively addressing gender-based violence, supporting over $300 million in development projects to tackle this issue within its financed operations. A recent study by the World Bank revealed that limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education result in countries losing between US$15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.
The economic implications of gender-based violence
The socioeconomic impacts of GBV are multi-faceted, often exhibiting themselves in different ways unrelated to each other. Although some impacts are easier to quantify, like loss incurred from career change or discrimination in getting certain roles, costs incurred from Productivity loss, psychological impacts, and inaccessibility to creativity are often hard to quantify in numbers.
To better understand the economic impact of GBV, we must categorise the adverse effects into different fields and analyse them individually.
1) Employment and work: According to a survey conducted by the American Association of University Women(AAUW), 38% of the respondents cited Work Place Harassment (WPH) as being the primary motivator of leaving a certain role, with an additional 37% noting that patterns of harassment are the main inhibitors of career advancement for them.
Another study shows that targets of WPH are 6.5 times more likely to leave their current roles. The study also states that women who suffered from gender-based violence earn 15% less than women who didn't, for various reasons, from stunted careers to productivity loss.
2) Education: Harkening back to a previous statistic by the World Bank, limited educational opportunities for girls cost countries up to $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings. 60 Million female students suffer from harassment every year, with more than 20% of them being forced to leave their education due to it.
UniSAFE conducted a survey with more than 42000 respondents from academic institutions, finding that 62% of the respondents have suffered from one form of GBV or the other since they started studying in that institution.
3) Psychological impacts:
A study notes that the relationship between sexual harassment and depressive symptoms is stronger for women who experienced sexual harassment early in their careers. Harassment is linked with increased anger, stress, concentration issues, low self-esteem, and much more.
Researchers Morrison and Orlando, in a 1999 paper, state that the presence of any kind of intimate partner violence —whether sexual, physical, or psychological—is associated with between a 34 and 46% reduction in earnings
4) Treatment cost for the victims:
GBV also accounts for expenditures in other sectors, including medical costs, psychological treatment costs, and legal fees. A study based in the US notes the average cost for different types of related treatments, with per incident of assault requiring $550 of treatment and mental health care costs ranging between $250-$350 for varying forms of violence.
5) Miscellaneous costs:
The company also suffers financially when employees suffer from WPH. There are administrative costs on behalf of the company to handle harassment complaints and carry out investigations. Companies also may face higher insurance premiums. Of course, lower productivity slashes a company's competitiveness, only further exasperated by its bad external image such events perpetrate. The loss of employees due to WPH also results in the loss of institutional knowledge for the company.
6) Economic costs on a social scale:
Gender-based violence has tremendous Economic costs on a broader scale. This ranges from lower tax revenue (due to decreased economic growth), reduced investment in affected areas, decrease in tourism revenue(due to bad external image), strain on public services (to support victims of GBV), and impact on the informal economy. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has estimated that the cost of gender-based violence across the EU is €366 billion a year, which is supposed to be much higher in the developing world.
Does poverty cause GBV?
In hindsight, even though poverty may seem like a direct cause of GBV, the actual situation is often murkier, with feminists and development practitioners having contradicting views. Even though poverty's role as the primary cause of domestic violence is long been cemented, it has been debated in various ways whether it plays an overarching role in GBV.
But what's universally acceptable is that poverty and GBV work in complex cycles of causality. Poverty often inhibits individuals from ensuring safety and basic needs, which, for the victims, exposes them to violence. As for the perpetrators, poverty often acts as a determinant in instigating their behaviour.
Again, GBV also inhibits individuals from securing a sustainable and proper future, making them fall deeper into poverty and instability, further increasing violence. In a 2000 study done by the World Bank, researchers found that poor women often cite violence as a factor in their poverty.
Causes of workplace harassment :
Work Place Harassment stems from the unfortunate mix of a plethora of issues, namely disadvantageous power dynamics, existing socio-cultural norms, harassment-motivating workplace layout, hierarchical structure, and lack of agency. Females who start out in an entry position are most likely to suffer from this. A 2017 EEOC study revealed that 71% of harassment charges involved supervisors harassing subordinates.
Cost of solution
A study by UNFPA states that an estimated $42 billion would significantly reduce gender-based violence in 132 priority countries. Of this sum, about 78% would need to be fresh investments.
What is the significance of this number? Well, a comprehensive global effort like this to address GBV would provide counselling to over 180 million women by 2030 and treatment to nearly 700,000 victims of rape.
The costs of violence can be drastically reduced for a fraction of itself through intervention. A study notes that, in countries like Timor-Leste and Lao PDR, where 40-60% of women suffer from violence, only $6 Million and $13.5 Million, respectively, could successfully establish appropriate intervention packages.
To put this number into perspective, less than $20 million can provide critical intervention to more than 2 million females in the two countries; that's just 10 dollars per person. To further break it down, the price of a subway footlong can be used to protect females from violence and lifelong trauma in some countries.
A key movement towards greater inclusion of women is Gender Responsive Budgeting(GRB), which is getting more attention with time. Its reaches are being seen from female rural entrepreneurs of Ghana getting microloans to US women fighting for greater intersectional equality.
A report by UN Women states, "A GRB approach to costing can identify gaps and weaknesses in VAW-related services or policies for better management of specialised and general public and private services that victims might access."
Information sharing and partnerships amongst different services and organisations can expedite GRB in vulnerable countries.
Looking at GBV from an economic lens helps us understand the gravity of the problem, and it also shows how rational steps (like changing policies or implementing intervention packages) can significantly help aid victims and somewhat curb this.