The Necessity of Understanding the Intangible Costs of Violence against Women

While violence against women is widespread world-wide and within the United States, I was recently surprised to discover that when measuring the cost of violence in an economic sense, the economic value of women is far less than that of men1. The next question to ask is – how exactly is “economic value” measured? One method, the human capitol approach, measures value in terms of participation in the labor market and wages earned. In this analysis, women, the elderly, and children are all assigned values less than that of men based on the fact that these groups earn lower wages on average and also have decreased overall participation and representation in the labor market. These measures however, are all intimately tied to “economic monetary value” and do not consider or take into account measures going beyond those directly related to the labor market.

A UN report on violence against women in 2005 addressed the need for expanding the ways in which economic value/cost is assessed2. The report separated the types of costs of violence against women into four different categories: direct tangible costs, indirect tangible costs, direct intangible costs and indirect intangible costs. Direct tangible costs include aspects that are typically assessed in cost measurement analyses including expenses paid and spent assessed by “measuring the goods and services consumed and multiplying by their unit cost.” Indirect tangible costs are also typically included in economic analyses and are typically measured as a loss of potential – including earnings and profits that would result from reduced productivity or loss of personal income due to decreased time at work. Usually these direct and indirect tangible costs have obvious monetary value that can be assessed through traditional means of economic analysis. The last two cost categories, indirect and direct intangible costs, however, present more difficult cost categories to measure. Indirect intangible costs “result indirectly from the violence, and have no monetary value” (in the traditional economic analysis sense), and can include the pain and suffering experienced by the woman and a resultant decreased overall quality of life. The indirect intangible costs also have no monetary value, but instead result indirectly from the violence, and can include the “negative psychological effects on children who witness violence,” or the decreased care a mother can provide after herself experiencing a traumatic or violent event. These indirect intangible costs are perhaps the least explored of the four cost categories. Recent evidence on the impacts of adverse early life environments on children would suggest that the indirect intangible cost category is perhaps the most biologically, socially and economically relevant category and thus necessitates further study and consideration.

In general, societal costs are dual-sided, with one side reflecting an analysis of economic changes related to monetary value, and the second side involving social consequences that may not be as easily measured. In particular when considering the cost of violence against women, the second societal cost, which includes health costs and effects on dependents of women affected by the violence indirectly, is not easily measured. In an early class discussion this semester on the biological bases and effects of violence, we discussed research demonstrating that women are often more prone to internalizing behaviors that can result in the development of and increased risk for psychiatric disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while men often exhibit externalizing behaviors following violence or traumatic experiences (such as aggression, violent behavior and crime). In fact, women are more likely to develop PTSD following an experience of trauma compared to men3. Understanding the biology behind these differences in susceptibility to PTSD development is of extreme importance.

In addition to the direct effects of violence on the woman, we must also consider the dependents (children, etc.) that are just as affected by the woman’s experience of violence. In fact, research has demonstrated that women experiencing domestic violence before becoming pregnant, have children who exhibit characteristics of children living in households with domestic violence, even if those children have been raised in safe environments4. There are several explanations for this phenomenon – biological factors and epigenetic mechanisms that occur in the mother as a result of experiencing extreme stress in the form of domestic violence may be passed on and predispose the child to having an increased risk for anxiety disorders and PTSD (see the recent blog post on transgenerational inheritance for more information). Additionally, the woman could continue to suffer from the traumatic experience and behaviorally develop a different mode of maternal care due to her increased stress, anxiety and depression, which can also adversely affect the developing child.

These intangible costs of violence against women represent huge potential cost categories both socially and economically. We must push to develop tools to document and measure the effects of violence against women on the second and third generation offspring. Biological research has shown that traumatic experiences in parental generations can be biologically transmitted/inherited by the offspring, and that these effects persist for several generations. We must enhance our sphere of understanding by developing ways to economically document these effects.

1Corso, P. S., Mercy, J. A., Simon, T. R., Finkelstein, E. A., & Miller, T. R. (2007). Medical costs and productivity losses due to interpersonal and self-directed violence in the United States. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(6), 474–482.

2Day, T., McKenna, K., Bowlus, A. (2005). The economic costs of violence against women: an evaluation of the literature – Expert brief compiled in preparation for the Secretary-General’s in-depth study on all forms of violence against women.

3Breslau, N. (2001). The epidemiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: what is the extent of the problem? Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 62(17), 16-22.


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