From her counterparts in Ghana, Bernice Owusu-Brown faced pushback and challenges when she chose a nontraditional, interdisciplinary topic for her graduate research. Her topic, the economics of intimate partner violence (IPV), is not something that is normally discussed and is scantly researched by economists in the West African nation.

“Colleagues accused me of trying to ‘poke a bear.’ Even some of my friends felt like I was pushing it. IPV is not a conversation that is welcomed,” she said.

Named a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Economics in the College of Science this year, Owusu-Brown will kick off this semester’s Women and Gender in Development Discussion Series. During a free talk on Sept. 14, she will discuss the correlation between Ghana’s work to increase female economic autonomy and the increase in intimate partner violence.

Owusu-Brown earned her doctorate in development economics through a collaborative program between the University of Ghana and the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki.

When she started her Ph.D. program, she had not ever heard the term intimate partner violence and it was not something she had even thought to research. Months into her program, though, she discovered research being collected about it. What she read was eye-opening.

“I had an idea of what IPV was because I had seen a friend experience it, but I had never learned what it was called,” she said. “So I started reading literature around it and found there was very little research being published in Ghana from the economics perspective.”

Seeing such a deep gap in information and awareness among researchers and the public in her country, Owusu-Brown realized she needed to change her dissertation topic.

The research 

Through personal interviews and an analysis of the Ghana Family Life and Health and the Ghana Demographic and Health Surveys collected by Ghana Statistical Services with funding from the Institute of Development Studies and the U.S. Agency for International Development respectively, Owusu-Brown first examined obstacles to policymakers’ efforts to eliminate intimate partner violence. She uncovered a chilling paradox. Policies to enhance women’s equality and economic growth could simultaneously increase a woman’s likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence.

“When we empower women, that power dynamic shift seems to cause abusers to further justify their violence. So a woman may want to go into the labor market as a way of avoiding their abusers or to build the economic clout to be self-sufficient, but they probably won’t because they’re scared getting a job would simply trigger more abuse.”

Traditionally, women in Ghana have low participation in the labor market, which negatively affects their independence and economic mobility. Throughout the world, research has shown that increasing women’s labor market participation improves their autonomy and freedom to leave harmful relationships, so that’s what local policies have been attempting to target.

Do Owusu-Brown’s findings challenge the current policies? She thinks policies for women’s empowerment can still be helpful — and even necessary. They just need to be more holistic.

“I recommend that policymakers remain cognizant of the simultaneous increase in a woman’s likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence.”

The dream

So far, Owusu-Brown’s research has yet to be brought to light in Ghana. Although she defended her dissertation in 2020 and has submitted three papers developed from her dissertation to different publications, some people in Ghana, like other developed and developing countries, are still hesitant to talk about this uncomfortable topic.

“I found most people don’t recognize abuse for what it is partly because we don’t have a social context or even vocabulary for it. And largely, it seems just ingrained in our reality. Most people we interviewed indicated they believe a man is justified for beating his wife if she were failing at certain domestic tasks.”

Owusu-Brown is not giving up, though, and her work is beginning to have impacts in other ways and in other places. Recently, she moved with her husband to Virginia, where she found a perfect niche to continue her postdoctoral research.

“I was so happy when I came to Virginia Tech and found that there was a course called Economics of Gender. This is exactly the type of interdisciplinary approach I was trying to pioneer while in Ghana. I believe economics is in everything. If we had this type of course back home, we could broaden our understanding of the multidisciplinary nature of this field.”

This semester, Owusu-Brown is teaching that very course in Blacksburg. She still wants to see her research reach policymakers in Ghana and hopes her willingness to venture into challenging topics and crossdisciplinary study will inspire other researchers to do the same.

“By standing my ground when colleagues told me that gender research had nothing to do with economics, I might be paving the way for others,” she said.

The talk

Owusu-Brown’s talk, “Women’s Labor Market Participation and Intimate Partner Violence in Ghana: A Multilevel Analysis,” will be held Thursday, Sept. 14, at 12:30 p.m. in the Newman Library Multipurpose Room and via Zoom. The talk is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

The Women and Gender in International Development Discussion Series is organized by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development and is an InclusiveVT initiative of Outreach and International Affairs. The series offers an opportunity for scholars and development practitioners to share their research and knowledge surrounding gender and international development with the Virginia Tech community and beyond.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Maria Elisa Christie at 540-231-4297 or

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