Humanitarian actors are aware of the risk of increased domestic violence and violence against women in contexts of crises. Indeed, we know that prolonged exposure to violent conflict adds to the daily stressors faced by individuals and risks triggering or aggravating violence within the family structure. Yet, to-date, there has been no rigorous evidence of a causal link between exposure to conflict violence and domestic violence in a representative sample.
In a new paper published in Violence Against Women we provide evidence that exposure to conflict violence increased the subsequent risk of domestic violence against women in Gaza 11 months after the end of the 2014 Israeli military operation. Married women living in areas that saw the highest levels of destruction were 10 per cent more likely to report psychological violence and marital control issues than women living in less destroyed areas. This shows that violent conflicts have a long-lasting and far-reaching detrimental impact on people and communities.
Uncovering the hidden cost of war
We exploited a unique dataset collected by ourselves on a representative sample of 439 married and non-married women in the Gaza strip. The dataset documents changes in livelihoods and places of residence, experiences of domestic violence before, during and after the Israeli military operation ‘Protective Edge’, as well as information on risk factors associated with domestic violence. The quantitative data was complemented by secondary data on neighborhood destruction due to the military operation, and primary qualitative data which allowed us to investigate the perceptions about causes and drivers of domestic violence, and channels through which domestic violence could be affected by the ongoing conflict.
We matched information on the residence of the survey respondents before the military operation in 2014 with the UNOCHA Gaza Crisis Atlas 2014. This document gives a detailed damage assessment from Israeli bombardments at the neighbourhood level across Gaza.
In and of itself, the scale of damage in the neighbourhood and whether a household is displaced could be correlated with drivers of domestic violence, such as the household’s location and socio-economic characteristics. Similarly, the extent of support available from neighbours, friends, and family could explain both the likelihood of displacement and domestic violence. Thus, any simple statistical association between exposure to conflict and domestic violence would not reveal the true estimate of the impact of the war on the experience of domestic violence.
We addressed this potential endogeneity bias by using propensity score matching (PSM), a popular quasi-experimental technique to estimate causal effects in non-experimental settings. The idea is still to compare rates of domestic violence between areas with different levels of destruction, but the matching method ensures that we only compare women with otherwise similar characteristics. Based on a set of pre-2014 military operation variables, the PSM estimator computes for all women the probability of living in areas affected by high levels of destruction (in technical terms this would be the ‘treatment group’). The estimator then finds women who did actually live in highly affected areas and matches them with women who did not live in highly affected areas – but have a similar predicted probability of living in highly affected areas – in other words, who otherwise share similar individual and household characteristics with women in the treatment group.
What explains the impact of conflict violence on domestic violence?
We found a very large significant positive relationship between the level of neighbourhood destruction and the likelihood of household displacement. Married women who lived in highly destructed neighbourhoods were 42 per cent more likely to be displaced than married women in neighbourhoods that were less destroyed.
Displacement is a likely key mechanism explaining the increased levels of domestic violence. We unpacked the mechanisms further by comparing displaced women with non-displaced women using the same PSM strategy. We found that displacement had a very large negative impact on married women’s involvement in household decision-making, and that it significantly reduced their number of friends in the neighbourhood. Both women’s control and social capital are known violence-reducing factors (and were found to protect women from domestic violence in our first set of estimations).
It is important to recognize that only 10 out of 176 respondents were still personally displaced at the time of the survey. Yet, the impact of even temporary displacement on domestic violence proved strong and lingering. This shows the importance of trying not to restrict data collection efforts to subsets of the population, e.g. in camps only. Furthermore, future studies in the field of gender and displacement should look at the effect of temporary, short-lived, displacement experiences.
Although the study recognizes that domestic violence is not solely explained by the military operation, it does play a significant aggravating role. As such, renewed and continued efforts to resolve this ongoing conflict are necessary – not only to reduce domestic violence, but for the overall improvement of the lives of the people of Gaza.