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Twenty-one-year-old Adouri Begum was married to a man several years older than her when she was 12 years old. Right after their wedding, they left their village and moved to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where they both started working in the same garment factory.

Initially, she says, everything was fine. She was earning less than him: 8,000 taka (about $95) compared to his 12,000 taka (about $142) per month. The work was hard and long. Living in a city slum was very different from their village but they were happy, she says.

Everything changed, though, after she gave their birth to their daughter. She says her husband forced her to give up working. Eventually, they needed the money, so she got a job at a different factory.

His family was not happy.

“They tried to stop me working,” she says. “They spread rumors about me, telling everyone I had a bad character.”

A bad character, she explains, means that she is a “loose woman.” Her parents-in-laws accused her of talking with other men at work. If she worked overtime they suggested she had been “up to no good.” The bitter irony was that her husband was having an affair, she says.

“He beat me all the time,” she says, “because of what his family was saying to me about my job, or if I asked about the other woman.”

Around the same time, she began to earn more than her husband, taking home, on average, around 13,000 taka (about $154) a month.

She told his family about his abuse and the affair, hoping they would help. Instead, she says, her in-laws beat her, too. “I feel so angry that he can do what he likes and I can’t,” she says.

Now, she is struggling to pay off the debts her husband left her with when he moved away with the other woman. Still, though, she says she would take her husband back: “It is so hard to survive as a single woman.”

A recent study of female garment factory workers in Dhaka found that 52 percent had experienced some form of domestic violence over the previous year.

As women’s roles change, according to the study, men seek to “punish” them for breaking with traditional gender norms and to reassert their power. Employment and financial independence can play a big role in this, especially when women begin to earn more than their husbands. Other forms of economic empowerment — owning or inheriting property, money or other assets, for example — can have the same effect, the research found.

“There is no one cause of domestic violence but we see factors, like this one, running across all social levels,” says Henrica Jansen of the United Nations Population Fund, who has carried out more than 30 violence-against-women studies. “We know if you want to tackle it, you need to work on all the levels.”

Jansen says the most affected societies are often those “with strong traditional gender roles and growing economies.”

The relationship between female employment and domestic abuse is very complicated, says Seema Vyas, who has studied partner violence in Tanzania. “Sometimes it is hard to know which way the arrow goes,” she says, “maybe women who are abused seek work to escape. Or maybe working triggers the abuse — or, as is often case, maybe both these are happening at the same time.”

More opportunities for female employment means men have more ways of economically abusing their wives: forcing them to work and then taking their money, says Vyas. “But the worst of both worlds is possible,” she explains, “a husband can force his wife to work and punish her for breaking gender norms at the same time.”

Bangladesh’s economy has changed rapidly over the last decade as the country has become a hub for garment manufacturing. The majority — around 80 percent — of those employed in garment factories are women, according to the World Bank. This surge in female employment has disrupted traditional gender norms in a short amount of time.

“We have seen a backlash from men against the challenge to gender roles,” says Ruchira Naved, a gender research specialist in Bangladesh. “In the slums particularly, the men feel they have been betrayed. Garment factories came in and employed women — many more women than men — and they pay much better than the jobs men from this background can get, as day laborers, for example. In most of the cases, the garment workers can earn more than their husbands.”

Women who experience domestic violence face limited options. In the slums where garment workers live, it is very risky for a woman to be by herself. “Without male protection, gangs will start hounding you,” says Naved. “Marriage is the only option.”

Shirin Akter and her daughter. (Susannah Savage)
Shirin Akter and her daughter. (Susannah Savage)

Twenty-four-year-old Shirin Akter was married when she was about 13. From the beginning, she was scared of her husband. The first time he hit her was when she was 8 months pregnant with their daughter, she says. “It was because he needed more money,” says Akter.

Her husband wanted 30,000 taka (about $357) from her parents as part of the dowry.

When Akter’s parents could not pay anymore, she says that her husband sent her to work in a garment factory. He forced her to work all the hours she could and took almost all of the 8,000 taka (about $95) she earned each month.

“I felt very sad,” she says. “I didn’t spend a single penny on my child. It all went to him — him and his mistress.”

Shirin Akter. (Susannah Savage)
Shirin Akter. (Susannah Savage)

More than once Akter ended up in the hospital. Her husband was friends with the managers in the factory she worked in and used these connections to keep tabs on her. If she tried to keep any overtime money for herself, was home late from work, or spoke too long to other men, he beat her.

Eventually, one night, about four years ago, he left. She was left with nothing.

“Now I work just for myself and my daughter. I feel powerful,” Akter says. “Making money makes me powerful.”

Over the past several years, Zambia — which faces high rates of gender-based violence — has introduced a range of initiatives, including the founding of a Ministry of Gender and government-run programs targeting child marriage, in an effort to stem violence against women.

“There is a big difference between legislation and statistics and reality, though,” says Muziula Kamanga, chairman of the women’s rights nonprofit Women in Law and Development in Africa. “This country is hugely conservative.” Religion, he says, plays a role. Many people believe Christianity tells them men are superior to women, which reaffirms the idea that men can do what they like.

Following cultural tradition, victims of abuse are also required to first seek help from elders, secondly from the Church, and only then from the police. They often do not make it past the first or second stage, though.

“Unemployment is a huge factor in the growing culture of abuse,” adds Kamanga. “Men are frustrated and women are an easy target.”

Nelson Banda, the director of the Zambian Men’s Network, which tackles gender-based violence by working to change male attitudes, explains that men “over much of sub-Saharan Africa,” think that “an African man’s role is to be the breadwinner. A woman’s role is in the house, doing household chores, and looking after her husband.”

“When my wife got a job in a restaurant, we fought badly,” says Joe Siamutuna, who is part of Men’s Network to better himself. “I told her she had to stop working and she said no. So, I beat her up.”

“The heart of the problem is power,” says Banda.

Twenty-six-year-old Ruth Chileshe met her husband, who is eight years older than her, in 2013. He was a taxi driver. “He would drive past me and talk to me,” she says, “I guess he liked how I looked.”

At the beginning, he was nice, she says, but then “he started to show his true colors.”

Once they were married, he quickly became violent. “He came home drunk and beat me up for no reason,” Chileshe says. Often the reason he gave was that she has tried to leave the house or do something without him. “He didn’t even let me study,” says Chileshe. “He just wanted me to stay inside the house — if not, he was suspicious.”

When Chileshe’s mother gave her some money — 15,000 kwacha (about $1,254) — Chileshe planned to set up a restaurant with the money.

“That is when the abuse got much, much worse,” says Chileshe. First, he took some of the money for himself, saying he would pay her back. Then, she says, “he started beating me every day. He didn’t want me to have any independence.”

Eventually, the abuse got so bad, she left, leaving behind her possessions and everything she had bought for her restaurant.

Next year, she will go back to school to study nursing.

“I never want to depend on a man again,” she says.

So what can be done?

Studies looking at interventions for gender-based violence have shown that initiatives pairing economic empowerment programs with “gender dialogue” groups for women and their male partners can result in a drop of domestic-violence rates.

“One reason for this is because women have more confidence to go home and address the violence with her partner,” says Naved, who ran an intervention like this in Dhaka’s slums.

Teaching women their rights and about the law gives them the skills to challenge different types of spousal abuse. This, combined with the financial independence and economic power that a job brings, not only enables women to tackle violence but also to make more decisions within the household.

It is Naved and Jansen’s hope that the increase in the rate of domestic violence are part of “a short-term backlash.”

"As cultural norms adjust to the new situation economic empowerment is likely to reduce abuse,” says Jansen. “Women should not be discouraged from working.”

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