Background: Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) conducted throughout sub-Saharan Africa indicate there is widespread acceptance of intimate partner violence, contributing to an adverse health risk environment for women. While qualitative studies suggest important limitations in the accuracy of the DHS methods used to elicit attitudes toward intimate partner violence, to date there has been little experimental evidence from sub-Saharan Africa that can be brought to bear on this issue. Methods and findings: We embedded a randomized survey experiment in a population-based survey of 1,334 adult men and women living in Nyakabare Parish, Mbarara, Uganda. The primary outcomes were participants’ personal beliefs about the acceptability of intimate partner violence and perceived norms about intimate partner violence in the community. To elicit participants’ personal beliefs and perceived norms, we asked about the acceptability of intimate partner violence in five different vignettes. Study participants were randomly assigned to one of three survey instruments, each of which contained varying levels of detail about the extent to which the wife depicted in the vignette intentionally or unintentionally violated gendered standards of behavior. For the questions about personal beliefs, the mean (standard deviation) number of items where intimate partner violence was endorsed as acceptable was 1.26 (1.58) among participants assigned to the DHS-style survey variant (which contained little contextual detail about the wife’s intentions), 2.74 (1.81) among participants assigned to the survey variant depicting the wife as intentionally violating gendered standards of behavior, and 0.77 (1.19) among participants assigned to the survey variant depicting the wife as unintentionally violating these standards. In a partial proportional odds regression model adjusting for sex and village of residence, with participants assigned to the DHS-style survey variant as the referent group, participants assigned the survey variant that depicted the wife as intentionally violating gendered standards of behavior were more likely to condone intimate partner violence in a greater number of vignettes (adjusted odds ratios [AORs] ranged from 3.87 to 5.74, with all p < 0.001), while participants assigned the survey variant that depicted the wife as unintentionally violating these standards were less likely to condone intimate partner violence (AORs ranged from 0.29 to 0.70, with p-values ranging from <0.001 to 0.07). The analysis of perceived norms displayed similar patterns, but the effects were slightly smaller in magnitude: participants assigned to the “intentional” survey variant were more likely to perceive intimate partner violence as normative (AORs ranged from 2.05 to 3.51, with all p < 0.001), while participants assigned to the “unintentional” survey variant were less likely to perceive intimate partner violence as normative (AORs ranged from 0.49 to 0.65, with p-values ranging from <0.001 to 0.14). The primary limitations of this study are that our assessments of personal beliefs and perceived norms could have been measured with error and that our findings may not generalize beyond rural Uganda. Conclusions: Contextual information about the circumstances under which women in hypothetical vignettes were perceived to violate gendered standards of behavior had a significant influence on the extent to which study participants endorsed the acceptability of intimate partner violence. Researchers aiming to assess personal beliefs or perceived norms about intimate partner violence should attempt to eliminate, as much as possible, ambiguities in vignettes and questions administered to study participants. Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT02202824.
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