Public Work Programs and Gender-Based Violence : Evidence from Lao PDR

Public workfare programs targeted at women have the potential to empower them economically by providing jobs. However, the impact of public workfare programs on gender-based violence is theoretically ambiguous. They may contribute to its reduction through lowering financial stress or improving a woman’s bargaining position due to independent income. Yet, a woman’s higher income may also create incentives to use violence for extractive purposes; putting women in a position of provider at home and in male dominated sectors outside the home may create a backlash because these positions violate gender norms. Working outside the home could reduce exposure to an abusive spouse, but it may increase harassment or assault outside the household. This paper analyzes the impacts of a public workfare program in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a lower-middle-income Asian country, where the government randomized implementation of a public workfare program targeted at rural women who received an average payment of US$550 over 18 months. The findings show that the program was successful in increasing female income, but it did not change women’s experience of gender-based violence: comparing program participants and control group women, there is no differences in self-reports of intimate partner violence (controlling behavior, emotional violence, or physical violence), violence from other members of the household, or violence from perpetrators outside the household. Some design aspects of this particular program may have resulted in the lack of impacts on gender-based violence. Changes in the design and implementation of public workfare programs are needed for them to work as a mechanism to reduce gender-based violence.