Intimate partner violence against women on the Colombia Ecuador border: a mixed-methods analysis of the liminal migrant experience

Colleen Keating, Sarah Treves-Kagan and Ana Maria Buller

Conflict and Health, Volume 15, Article No. 24 (2021)


Research has shown that women who experience conflict and displacement are at higher risk of intimate partner violence (IPV). This paper investigates the experiences of displaced Colombian women living in the border regions in Ecuador, and explores how their social, economic, and legal marginalization compounds their risk of IPV. The authors use a ‘liminality’ framework, a term used to describe both the intermediate state of individuals during their migration journey as well as the legal, economic and physical insecurity of border regions.

The mixed-methods analysis draws on data from a cluster randomized controlled study of a World Food Programme (WFP) Cash, Voucher, and Food Transfer program conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The study was conducted in 2011 in seven urban areas within the provinces of Carchi and Sucumbíos in northern Ecuador.

The authors focused on a sub-sample of 15 in-depth interviews and 319 longitudinal surveys for women who self-identified as Colombians. Drawing on this data, they conducted an empirical analysis to understand the factors associated with experiences of IPV.

Main findings:

  • 29 percent of the Colombian women in the sample had experienced emotional IPV, and 15 percent had experienced physical and/or sexual IPV.
  • Lack of legal documentation creates conditions for IPV to continue or escalate. Most of the women did not have the money, time, or literacy to obtain permanent legal status. Without legal documentation in Ecuador, they couldn’t travel freely across the border, own property, or secure regular, formal employment—creating the conditions through which IPV was able to continue or escalate.
  • Previous experiences of abuse increased the risk of subsequent IPV. In the interviews, several women disclosed physical or sexual abuse either as children or in previous marriages, and many of them described near continuous IPV in their current relationships. The quantitative analysis of survey data showed that recent experiences of IPV were highly associated with previous experiences of IPV, consistent with the broader literature that shows that women previously exposed to violence are at increased risk for later victimization.
  • Physical or sexual IPV is also associated with experiences of forced displacement and violence in both origin and destination countries. Both qualitative and quantitative data showed how exposure to guerrilla violence and subsequent displacement contributed to the risk of IPV. As the presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups has spilled over into the Ecuadorian side of the border, Colombian refugees were affected by the same violence that triggered their displacement.
  • Social isolation in displacement settings amplified the risk of IPV and limited the women’s ability to cope. Most of the women in the study had few or no relatives living nearby, had limited contact with family across the border, were severely restricted in their mobility by their partners (facilitated by strict gender roles), and faced difficulties developing social support networks in their new communities, which seemed to stem from real or perceived anti-Colombian sentiment. For women with family nearby, survey results showed that this provided some protection against emotional violence. No statistically significant associations were detected between physical and/or sexual violence and having family nearby, most likely due to the smaller number of women in the survey reporting physical and/or sexual IPV. These findings are in line with previous research documenting discrimination and adherence to traditional inequitable gender norms as risk factors for IPV, while social support acts as a protective factor.
  • Experiences of IPV are associated with economic stress. While quantitative results showed that most men were working, qualitative data revealed that their jobs were low-paying, irregular, and insecure, and that the stress and insecurity of poverty greatly contributed to IPV. A higher value of women-owned assets was slightly protective against IPV but entering the labor force for women was a risk factor.
  • Housing insecurity contributed to marital stress and IPV. Only 25 percent of the quantitative sample owned their home, and renting was a significant risk factor for physical and/or sexual IPV.

The authors conclude that protracted displacement in the border region resulted in continuous physical, social, and economic insecurity, which intensifies the conditions that facilitate IPV. The findings emphasize the necessity for policy makers to consider how the long-term marginalization of refugee women contributes to their victimization.


Colombia | Ecuador