Domestic violence is widely accepted in most developing countries, says a new study of attitudes towards domestic violence in 49 low and middle-income countries across Central, East and South Asia, Central Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, North- and Sub-Saharan Africa.

"Our findings show that more than one third of people in these countries believe that domestic violence is justified in situations where the woman is seen as transgressing traditionally expected gender roles," says lead researcher Dr LynnMarie Sardinha. "Domestic violence prevention policies tackling harmful gender norms are thus urgent and vital."

Based on Demographic and Health Survey data from 1.17 million men and women, the study provides insights into attitudes towards domestic violence in the Global South and the influence of country-level socioeconomic and political factors on its acceptance.

The surveys asked whether people thought a husband or partner was justified in beating his wife or partner if she goes out without telling him, argues with him, neglects the children, refuses sex, burns the food or if he suspects her of being unfaithful. On average 36% of respondents justified it in at least one of these situations.

Justification of domestic violence varied significantly across the 49 countries. Overall, acceptance was highest in South Asia (47%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (38%), compared with Latin America and the Caribbean (12%). And in 36 of the 49 countries (mainly in south-east Asia and SubSaharan Africa), women were more likely to justify the behaviour than men. "Women in these contexts may often internalise the idea that the physical 'punishment' is a husband's legitimate reprisal for a wife's disobedience, and may view this as 'disciplining' rather than 'violence'," says Dr Sardinha.

Macro contexts, such as political environment, play an important role in acceptance of domestic violence. For example, acceptance is more prevalent in countries that have experienced political conflict in the past five years and lower in countries with more democratic regimes.

"Commonly-used measures of countries’ gender equality – for example, women's labour force participation and number of seats held by women in national parliament – did not significantly influence society's acceptance of domestic violence," says Dr Sardinha. "International policies that focus on narrowly defined economic or political 'empowerment' alone will not be sufficient in tackling domestic violence and its acceptance. We need tailored, context- and gender-specific interventions that target existing discriminatory gender norms."