What’s the link between feminist movements and Violence Against Women?

August 15, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

There’s a fascinating, brilliant and I think, very significant, piece on the role of feminism in driving action on violence against women in the latest issueNo VaW of Gender and Development (ungated versions on Oxfam policy and practice website, please note).

Authors Laurel Weldon and Mala Htun have painstakingly constructed the mother of all databases, covering 70 countries over four decades (1975 to 2005). It includes various kinds of state action (legal and administrative reforms, protection and prevention, training for officials), and a number of other relevant factors, such as the presence of women legislators, GDP per capita, the nature of the political regime etc.

This allows them both to chart steady improvements in VaW policy (see maps at bottom of this piece) and to use stats techniques to try and identify those factors most closely correlated with state action. Here’s what they find:

“Countries with the strongest feminist movements tend, other things being equal, to have more comprehensive policies on violence against women than those with weaker or non-existent movements. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth.

These movements can make the difference between having a critical legal reform or funding for shelters or training for the police, and not having it…. women’s status agencies, international norms, and other factors further strengthen feminist efforts…

Women’s autonomous organising has played a critical role for three reasons. First, women organising as women generate social knowledge about women’s position as a group in society. The problem of violence surfaces as an issue of primary concern when women come together to discuss their priorities as women.

Second, the issue of violence against women challenges, rather than reinforces, established gender roles in most places. In contrast with ‘maternalist’ issues such as maternity leave or child-care, for which women can advocate without straying too far from traditional gender scripts (that is, conventional ideas about women’s role in society), addressing violence against women requires challenging male privilege in sexual matters and social norms of male domination. It is difficult for legislative insiders (members of legislatures and bureaucrats) to take on social change issues without the political support of broader mobilisation. An example of the costs to individuals of taking up these issues isolated from broader support is that of a bureaucrat in Sweden who lost her position when she was unwilling to attribute male violence against women to individual pathologies, such as alcoholism, rather than to gender inequality and widespread tolerance of violent male behaviour.

Third, as suggested earlier, women can more easily get violence against women and other gender issues recognised as priorities in autonomous feminist organisations. When women are organised within broader political institutions, ‘women’s issues’ such as violence against women or equal pay are commonly perceived as being of importance ‘only’ to women, and arguing for the relevance of their concerns in relation to a defined set of priorities is made much more difficult.”

The importance of domestic feminist movements also applies to whether international and regional treaties have much impact (pay attention, post-2015 types):

“International and regional treaties were most influential in countries with strong domestic feminist movements. Feminist activists magnify the effects

Colombia sexual violence report 2

of treaties in local contexts by drawing attention to any gaps between ratification and compliance with goals for equality. In the CEDAW process, for example, governments must produce an official report for a UN committee and submit to questioning by committee members, most of whom have also read the critical ‘shadow’ reports written by civil society organisations. Even governments with little intention to comply are held to account for their behaviour in a public international forum. In this process, domestic activists work with international groups and organisations to increase pressure on their national governments, a pattern called the ‘boomerang’ effect.

Treaties give normative leverage to national civil society organisations. At the same time, local activist organisations bring home the value of international and regional treaties. They raise awareness of the rights recognised by the treaties; they use them to train judges, police, and other officials; and they use treaties as tools to lobby legislatures to change discriminatory laws. We found an interactive effect between international norms and autonomous feminist mobilisation, although the effect was more visible in later periods. International norms and autonomous feminist mobilisation magnified the effect of one another. International treaties alter the expectations of domestic actors and strengthen and even spark domestic mobilisation.

In our quantitative analysis, when a strong, autonomous feminist movement was absent, CEDAW ratification seemed to have a barely significant negative effect on the adoption of violence against women policy. This negative relationship may reflect a pattern whereby governments view the ratification of CEDAW as a costless way to enhance their international reputation, while continuing or even stepping up resistance to undertaking real action on violence against women, because they know there will be no pressure by local activists.”

The authors add one important caveat: “Our index does not capture variation in the implementation of policies against violence. In some places, legal reforms took effect immediately, and policy measures were well-funded and executed. In others, reforms have remained mainly ‘on the books’, in the sense of not being fully implemented.”

Please read the GaD article (it’s also a great introduction to the whole topic of VaW), and if you are keen to dig even deeper, you can always go to the American Political Science Review paper on which it is based.

And here’s the maps – state action on VaW, 1975 and 2005

VAW 1975VAW 2005

August 15, 2013
Duncan Green