Sleeping with the Enemy
Violence has a striking gender pattern. Men are more likely to be attacked by a stranger, while women are “sleeping with the enemy” experiencing violence mostly from their husbands, intimate partners or close relatives. Latin American countries have been aware of this situation for at least a decade. In 1994, Latin American countries signed the pioneering Convention of Belém do Pará, which demonstrates the region’s awareness of this situation. Sadly, household violence against women persists today. In fact, domestic violence seems to be generalized and is among the most pervasive types of violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Eliminating gender violence and promoting dignity among human beings is a cause that does not need any ulterior economic justification. Furthermore, even the World Health Organization asserts that interpersonal violence is a major challenge to global public health. However, the truth is that, indeed, there is a serious cost of violence against women in terms of intangible outcomes, which affect not only women but the entire society and future generations.
Using a sample of nearly 83,000 women in seven countries— from all income groups and all sub-regions in Latin America and the Caribbean- the study Causal Estimates of the Intangible Costs of Violence against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean by Jorge Agüero, shows that physical violence creates a negative externality: it affects important short-term health outcomes for children whose mothers suffered from violence. The evidence suggests that domestic violence has effects on child mortality and morbidity, malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. In fact, children with mothers who had suffered domestic violence have shown to be shorter than their peers.
There are also “intangible non-lethal” effects of domestic violence that can affect long-term health outcomes. Naturally, a woman that has been affected by domestic violence may be limited in her ability to care for her children. Children growing up in households where there is violence among intimate partners can suffer from behavioral and emotional problems. These intangible side effects must be considered to fully understand the roots of a violent “macho culture.”
Additionally, there is a problem with the approach to domestic violence in the traditional models, which usually considers only two individuals—husband and wife—where one of them uses violence against the other. These models presuppose the existence of rational agents and complete information, which cannot explain in-dephth the causes of domestic violence. According to this approach there are two main motivations for the use of violence: men have heterogeneous preferences for violence, or men attempt to use violence as a mechanism to influence their wives’ behavior. The problem with this approach is that it often ignores the impact of violence on children.
What is the cause of these motivations for violence among men? Can violence against women be passed down from generation to generation? If a spouse internalizes the negative effect of violence on the health of children who witness it, can the likelihood of violence be reduced? Whether this reduction comes from changes in the incentives of the husband or the wife will depend on how much each values his or her children. However, as Agüero suggests, this internalization is not currently present in these models.
Finally, talking about “machismo” as a culture implies that it is accepted and promoted. Studies like this provide evidence to support the argument that gender violence cannot be part of any culture; it not only hurts women but perpetuates a cycle of violence that goes well beyond home and infects society. The approach to combatting violence against women in Latin America appears to be changing. Hopefully, new initiatives are on the horizon as policymakers increasingly recognize that, as modern societies, it is time to tackle the “cultural acceptance of violence” not only against women but in all of its expressions.