Economic power may bring backlash for women in developing countries

April 24, 2021
Female empowerment can have benefits and challenges in developing countries. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Female empowerment can have benefits and challenges in developing countries. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Women on the British side of the historic Anglo-French partition of Cameroon are more economically empowered than their French counterparts, but they are also at a higher risk for domestic violence, according to a new study that paints a nuanced picture of female empowerment in developing countries.

Using a natural experiment created by the history of Cameroon, and by examining both sides immediately surrounding the historical Picot line in Cameroon today, the researchers found that women on the British side of the Anglo-French divide have a 24% higher likelihood to be in paid employment in comparison with their French counterparts — a large effect since the average female paid employment rate throughout the examined region, about 25 miles on both sides of the historical divide, is 62% overall.  Moreover, the study, published April 1 in the Journal of Development Economics, notes that women on the British side generally have more control over household resources and property ownership. 

While women on the British side have more economic opportunities on average, though, they are also at a 10% higher risk of domestic violence, according to the researchers' analysis of the Cameroon Demographic and Health Survey.

Helmut Rainer, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Munich, told The Academic Times that this research was motivated by his interest to study "the economic determinants of domestic violence; how economic opportunities affect the treatment of women, in particular within families." Cameroon's partition afforded the researchers a natural historical experiment where they could investigate the long-term effects of colonialism on women since Cameroon's two colonial regimes had widely divergent policies in terms of economic opportunities for women.

Present-day Cameroon and its boundaries were shaped by the historical forces present at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In an attempt to compete with other European powers in the West African trade, Germany established the African colony of Kamerun in 1884. Kamerun was made up of all present-day parts of Cameroon, in addition to portions of present-day Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Chad and Nigeria. 

However, Germany's control ended when France, Great Britain and Belgium invaded German territories in Africa at the start of World War I. By the end of the war, Cameroon was officially partitioned into two parts as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

The "Picot line" divided the territory between the eastern side of Cameroon, governed by France, and the western side of Cameroon, governed by Great Britain. This partition existed from 1919 until the early 1960s, when Cameroon won its independence and unified the two colonies. 

British rule of Cameroon created economic opportunities for women because they were allowed to earn cash wages in export-oriented agriculture under the same conditions as their male counterparts, according to Rainer and his colleagues. Moreover, British rule afforded women on the western side of Cameroon more education since its Protestant education system was aimed at educating both girls and boys.

In contrast, French rule on the eastern side of the colony focused mainly on educating a "small administrative elite" of men, investing in male-dominated industries such as the infrastructure sector, which was building railways and roads. These differences led to the economic disparity seen today between women on either side of the historical dividing line, but that legacy is a nuanced one since economically empowered women on the British side are also at a higher risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. 

These findings are contrary to theories positing that women's risk of domestic violence should go down as their labor market status and economic opportunities increase, according to Rainer, which he said is the case in developed countries such as the U.K. Likewise, researchers have observed positive effects of women's economic empowerment in other contexts, including a study published last year that showed female breadwinning is less likely to result in break-ups than in decades past.

In contrast, though, the results found in the present study are in line with theories of male backlash: In order to maintain a culture of male authority and control over women, men resort to violence when their partners' economic opportunities increase, according to the researchers. In support of this interpretation, the researchers note that women on the British side are 12% more likely to experience an objection to their employment by their partner, according to their analysis.

Rainer said this "two-sided legacy" of colonialism in Cameroon presents important insights today in terms of women's empowerment in developing countries: Social policies must ensure that women are protected from domestic violence in addition to increasing their economic opportunities. 

"Empowering women economically alone may not be enough to really ensure that they are overall really better off," Rainer said. "You also need to make sure that what's happening within the family due to these better opportunities in the labor market doesn't turn against them." 

The Study "Colonialism and female empowerment: A two-sided legacy," published April 1 in the Journal of Development Economics, was co-authored by Helmut Rainer, University of Munich, Ifo Institute and CESifo; and Eleonora Guarnieri, Ifo Institute and University of Exeter.

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