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Researcher takes aim at discrimination and intimate partner violence

Research funding recipient Nina Buchmann is leading ground-breaking work to study and reduce discrimination and domestic violence in Bangladesh.
Gender and Equity

Nina Buchmann was working with a dataset involving thousands of women in a study about how to reduce child marriage in Bangladesh when she noticed several interesting trends related to intimate partner violence.

First, nearly half of the women in the dataset reported experiencing violence; second, women described men’s violence against them as justified; and, third, low-income wives were up to twice as likely to have experienced some forms of violence in the past year as their higher-income peers.

woman standing in garden
Nina Buchmann

“Those patterns were incredibly striking to me,” says Buchmann, who was a predoctoral researcher at the time. “I wanted to understand: Why is violence so prevalent? Why does it persist?”

Now, Buchmann, a PhD student in economics and a recipient of Graduate Student Research Funding from the Stanford King Center on Global Development, is attempting to answer some of those questions with the ultimate goal of designing interventions that will reduce intimate partner violence in Bangladesh and beyond. She is also studying paternalistic discrimination in Bangladesh, where employers might reject qualified women for jobs the employer considers too dangerous (Buchmann notes that many countries have forms of paternalistic discrimination; in the United States, for instance, military combat jobs were only opened to women in 2016).

Protecting women and other minorities from challenging or stressful jobs deprives them of the opportunity to build important skills and prove themselves,” she says. “This could contribute to the gender skills gap and the promotion gap.”

Buchmann grew up in Germany but spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka, where her father worked. She felt so connected to the culture that she planned to return after high school before attending university. When the country’s civil war disrupted that plan, a family contact helped her land an internship in India with a software company that needed a German speaker.  

Buchmann’s family ties to Sri Lanka as well as her stay in India had fostered her interest in development issues, and, at Harvard, where she studied economics and government as an undergraduate, she fell in love with the “rigorous” methods economists use in their research. After graduating, she worked for the European Central Bank and a United Nations entity focused on debt and development finance but realized she wanted to study issues of gender and discrimination. She earned a master’s degree in international and development economics from Yale University in 2015.

Buchmann then spent two years as a research associate working on the child marriage study at the Duke Development Lab with Erica Field and Rachel Glennerster before coming to Stanford, where she was drawn to the work of King Center Faculty Director Pascaline Dupas and Professor of Economics Muriel Niederle. Both are now her advisors.

This summer, after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Buchmann plans to run her intimate partner violence experiments with nearly 9,000 households. The experiments will replicate a pilot study she conducted among 100 households in rural villages in Kushtia, Bangladesh, in 2019. Studying intimate partner violence—and designing interventions that attempt to reduce such violence—is difficult for many reasons; researchers must be careful not to trigger actual harmful behavior among the people they are studying.

One of Buchmann’s experiments paired strangers in a “game” in which one partner chooses a higher- or lower-quality meal for the other, allowing participants to deploy an annoying sound against partners they perceived to have slighted them (in parts of rural Bangladesh, custom dictates that women eat after men).

plates of food
Meals with varying quality of foods used in the "game"

The results of the pilot, which tested numerous variables in different ways and used the sound as a harmless proxy for punishment, were compelling. Among the findings: Punishment by men increased by about 30 percent when the game was played in public; men with lower self-esteem also punished at higher rates.

Buchmann plans to use the results from the final study in another experiment jointly with Paula Lopez-Pena and Atonu Rabbani that will test whether entertainment-based educational campaigns (so-called edutainment) can reduce intimate partner violence. The campaigns will focus on changing social norms that make it acceptable to use violence to control or punish behavior that is seen as undesirable and on training men to better manage their anger in non-violent ways.

“Edutainment has been found to be a good way to transmit information,” Buchmann says, adding that “it’s also very scalable” compared to other interventions such as one-on-one counseling.

“If we can narrow down more precisely what are the drivers of violence, we can help researchers and policymakers build mitigative strategies,” she adds.

Buchmann’s ongoing paternalistic discrimination research (with Colin Sullivan and Carl Meyer) is also based on the results of an earlier pilot study she conducted. In that pilot, employers were making hiring decisions between male and female candidates for three different single-day data-processing jobs—a daytime shift with transport home, a nightshift with transport home, and a nightshift without transport home (Buchmann cites data showing that 94 percent of women in Bangladesh report having been sexually harassed while using public transportation).

The results speak for themselves. Employers were almost half as likely to hire women for the nightshift without transportation as compared to the dayshift or the nightshift with transport. Buchmann’s experiment also tests for the downstream effects of discrimination at the hiring stage. When all the candidates were given a follow-up Excel test, women who had not been hired did not perform as well as those who had been, meaning they were disadvantaged in applying for more skilled positions later.

a corn field in rural Bangladesh
A rural field in Bangladesh | Credit: Tanvir Mahatab

“Early paternalistic discrimination—even with the benevolent intention of protecting women from the harm that could come from getting home without a safe ride—contributes to systemic discrimination later on,” Buchmann says.

In addition to providing funding for her projects, Buchmann says the King Center community has been beneficial to her development as a scholar.

“I get a lot of energy and support from the King Center,” she says. “It feels like a family.”

Dupas, who is co-authoring a paper with Buchmann on financial decision-making within households, says her advisee is “a brilliant, highly promising student.”

“I consider her already as a peer,” Dupas says. “Given how resourceful and committed Nina is, there is no doubt in my mind that her work will be very impactful.”

Having Dupas as an advisor has been “incredible,” Buchmann says. “She is an amazing role model: She is not only an extraordinary researcher but also genuinely cares about helping others—both through her research and outside of it.”

Buchmann’s work on discrimination and domestic violence can be difficult. But she says she draws inspiration from the people she meets in her studies.

“Economists think in large numbers: Every person is a data point,” she says. “But every data point is also a person. Seeing how these interventions can improve people’s lives keeps me going.”