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Cash Transfers and Domestic Violence in Ecuador

Development Challenge

Violence against women is a health and human rights issue around the world and represents a significant obstacle in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. In Ecuador, the lifetime prevalence of physical violence toward women is 31 percent. Consequences of domestic violence extend beyond physical and emotional harm; domestic violence can also result in lost labor earnings for women, poor health of women and children, lower IQ in children, and negative educational outcomes including spillovers to peers in the classroom.

In advanced economies, reduced wage gaps between genders, divorce laws and advocacy services have been shown to reduce domestic violence. In developing countries, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have also been successful in reducing it. However, because such transfers were conditional on health and education requirements, it is impossible to know whether the results were caused by an increase in a woman’s income or by the required conditions. There is a lack of consensus on the relationship between income and domestic violence. Some theories predict cash transfers lower domestic violence by empowering women and reducing marital dependence, while others predict an increase due to the disruption of power roles within the household.


The Bono de Desarollo Humano (BDH) program was launched in 2003 by the Government of Ecuador. The program transferred approximately $15 per month to mothers in the poorest two quintiles of the population. On average, the transfer increased a family’s monthly income by 6-10 percent. BDH was designed to be conditional on schooling and health requirements, but because these conditions were never administered, it was essentially an unconditional cash transfer (UCT) program. 

Evaluation Strategy

Parishes from six provinces in Ecuador were randomized into treatment and control groups. BDH became available in the treatment parishes in 2004 and was not phased into the control parishes until 2006. The World Bank, in collaboration with the Government of Ecuador, surveyed households in all parishes twice, once before the program and once after the phase-in was complete.

Because the study investigated domestic violence, only the 2,028 mothers living with their husbands or partners at both the baseline and follow-up survey were included in the analysis. Additionally, surveyors only administered questions about domestic violence to mothers whose partners were not present during the interview, narrowing the sample to 1250 mothers - 836 from the treatment group and 414 from the control group. 

The study estimated the treatment effect of the BDH on the probability of a mother experiencing physical violence, emotional violence, or controlling behavior by her spouse or partner. 

Results and Policy Implications

Unconditional cash transfers reduced the incidence of controlling behavior by male partners in this study. Specifically, the BDH increased the probability that a man allows his partner or wife to see her friends and family, study, or work. On average, the cash transfer did not significantly change a woman’s probability of experiencing physical or emotional violence.

Education levels of mothers and their partners are significant in determining the size of the treatment effect.

  • For mothers with more than six years of formal schooling, the receipt of a cash transfer decreased the probability of emotional violence and controlling behavior by 8 and 14 percentage points, respectively.
  • For mothers with less than six years of schooling but with at least as much education as their partners, the treatment increased the probability of emotional violence by 9 percentage points.
  • The impact of the BDH was greatest on mothers with more than six years of schooling and less schooling than their partners; in these households, the BDH decreased emotional violence and controlling behavior by 27 and 17 percentage points, respectively.

This study confirms that increasing a woman’s income does not always either decrease or increase domestic violence; rather there is an ambiguous relationship consistent with intra-household bargaining models.  Some women will experience negative consequences as a result of receiving additional income; as such, policymakers should identify such vulnerable households and take measures to reduce their risk when designing a cash transfer scheme. 



Photo credit: Ecuador Times, November 2012