Cambodia WTO

WTO accession increased intimate partner violence in Cambodia


Published 10.05.24

Cambodia’s extensive unilateral trade liberalisation following its accession to the WTO in 2004 led to physical, sexual, and psychological violence against women in districts where tariff reductions were more pronounced

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article appeared on VoxEU.

In the last few decades, the world has seen a remarkable increase in global economic integration and a rapid push for trade liberalisation, fundamentally changing the economic dynamics for developing countries around the world. This transformation has been followed by a large body of empirical research documenting the substantial effects of increased exposure to import competition on local labour markets. Studies have shown that greater exposure to import competition often leads to adverse labour market outcomes, including job losses and declining earnings for workers in affected industries (Pavcnik 2017, Dix-Carneiro and Kovak 2019).

Moreover, the impact of trade-induced job losses extends beyond the labour market adjustments, spilling over into day-to-day social dynamics. Empirical studies have found that areas experiencing significant job losses due to import competition are also more likely to witness an increase in violent crime. This rise in crime can be attributed to several factors, including the lower opportunity costs associated with engaging in criminal activities, reduced provision of public goods, and heightened income inequality (Dix-Carneiro et al. 2018, Dell et al. 2019). Furthermore, the labour market effects of trade liberalisation are not uniform across genders. Differences in initial employment rates across sectors often result in differential impacts on men and women (Gaddis and Pieters 2017).

Despite the growing evidence on crime-related consequences of import competition and its gender-specific effects on job losses, previous studies have largely neglected the potential impact of trade liberalisation on intimate partner violence experienced by women. Intimate partner violence, which includes physical, sexual, and psychological violence perpetrated by a current or former partner, is a pervasive social problem with serious implications for individuals, families, and societies at large.

Trade liberalisation has the potential to influence the risk of intimate partner violence in several ways. On one hand, if higher import competition leads to more significant job losses among men than women, the resulting narrowing of the gender employment gap could empower women by increasing their bargaining power and reducing their economic dependence on their partners (Aizer 2010, Anderberg et al. 2016). This, in turn, could reduce intimate partner violence as women gain greater control over their lives and resources.

On the other hand, the same reduction in the gender employment gap might have adverse effects. For instance, it may increase men’s incentives to use violence as a means of asserting control or extracting resources from women (Eswaran and Malhotra 2011, Bobonis et al. 2013, Erten and Keskin 2018, 2021a). Moreover, import competition may widen the gender employment gap if women disproportionately lose their jobs relative to men, which may lead to opposite effects through these channels.

To shed light on these intrahousehold dynamics, in Erten and Keskin (2024), we conducted a study examining the effects of trade-induced employment changes on intimate partner violence. Our study focused on the labour demand shocks resulting from Cambodia's trade liberalisation, which saw significant reductions in nominal tariffs across various industries following the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2004.

In Figure 1, we observe a significant decline in average nominal tariffs from approximately 18% in 2001 to 8% in 2014. Additionally, Figure 2 illustrates that the industries with the highest tariff levels prior to liberalisation experienced the greatest tariff reductions. The differential tariff reductions across industries were primarily the outcome of Cambodia’s WTO negotiations, excluding the possibility of discretionary changes to the tariff structure.

Figure 1 Average nominal tariff rates


Notes: This graph plots the unweighted average of nominal tariff rates over time for Cambodia. The average is constructed at the 3-digit industrial classification level. Tariff data are obtained from the WITS–TRAINS database.

Figure 2 Tariff reductions and pre-liberalisation tariff rates by sector


Notes: This graph shows the total reduction in tariffs between 2001 and 2014 observed by subsector relative to the pre-liberalisation tariff rate observed in 2001. Correlation: -0.912; regression coefficient: -0.780; standard error: 0.063; t: –12.35. Tariff data are obtained from the WITS–TRAINS database.

Leveraging detailed industrial employment data from the 1998 Census, we constructed a measure of exposure to tariff reductions at the district level. By comparing districts more exposed to tariff declines due to their initial industry mix to those less affected, we assessed how changes in employment composition affected the risk of intimate partner violence.

The analysis revealed several findings. First, men employed in districts facing larger tariff reductions experienced a significant relative decline in paid employment. In contrast, women employed in harder-hit districts increased their relative entry into the labour force. In particular, women who were previously outside the labour force began to contribute to family income by working additional hours in family-owned enterprises. These findings suggest an added worker effect, in which a reduction in the employment probability of men induces more women to participate in the labour market to compensate for the income loss experienced by their partners.

Next, we examined the link between trade-induced employment changes and the prevalence of intimate partner violence. Using data from multiple rounds of the Demographic and Health Surveys of Cambodia, we found that women in districts more exposed to trade liberalisation experienced a relative increase in different forms of violence, including physical, sexual, and psychological violence. Moreover, these women reported a higher likelihood of physical injuries due to violence from their partners, along with a decline in decision-making power within the household.

Exploring alternative mechanisms, we found no evidence of differential changes in marriage rates, fertility, psychological distress, or husbands’ behavioral indicators in the affected districts. These findings suggest that trade-induced employment changes primarily affect the prevalence of intimate partner violence through shifts in labor market dynamics and intrahousehold bargaining power. Overall, these findings are consistent with instrumental theories of violence, which posit that men may use violence as a tool for controlling household decision-making, appropriating resources from women, or compelling them to work more. In this context, we conducted additional analyses to demonstrate how intimate partner violence may be used as a means of coercing women into unpaid labour within family enterprises.

Our research contributes to the expanding body of international trade literature exploring the impact of trade liberalisation on various health and economic indicators. Existing studies have investigated outcomes such as mortality and marriage market outcomes (Autor et al. 2019, Pierce and Schott 2020), self-reported health assessments (Lang et al. 2019, Adda and Fawaz 2021), labour market outcomes (Dix-Carneiro and Kovak 2019, Branstetter et al. 2019, Keller and Utar 2020), crime (Dell et al. 2019, Dix-Carneiro et al. 2018), and local public goods provision (Feler and Senses 2017). Our analysis adds to a broader understanding of distributional consequences of trade liberalisation by focusing on an outcome—intimate partner violence—that has not been previously studied in the trade literature. Our findings underscore the importance of changes in gender-specific employment patterns resulting from trade openness, which can significantly influence intra-household bargaining dynamics. Understanding these dynamics is essential for accurately assessing the societal impacts of trade liberalisation policies and avoiding potential underestimation of the adverse effects on vulnerable populations.


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