Violence against women: who can make the biggest difference?


It seems a given for the 21st century discourse to regularly “take the pulse” of feminism. Countless articles, columns, blogs and conferences ask the same questions: Is it working? Has it failed? Is “feminism” a dirty word?

This dialogue is inevitably tiresome and, more importantly, deflects attention away from actual feminist issues, such as violence against women.

With that in mind, committed feminists tired of this constant media second-guessing will be pleased to hear of the latest news from Cambridge and the American Political Science Review.

To wit: a four-decade long, 70-country study has found that feminist movements are the most important key to change for the better when it comes to eliminating violence against women; more important than left-wing politics, the wealth of the individual countries, or the number of female politicians in the region.


The study is impressively comprehensive. It “includes every region of the world, varying degrees of democracy, rich and poor countries, and a variety of world religions – it encompasses 85 per cent of the world's population. Analysing the data took five years, which is why the most recent year covered is 2005.”

That ought to be enough ammo to head off at the pass those who like to whine about the size of study sample groups not being truly indicative of global trends.

(The full report can be accessed here.)

The report found that the issue of violence against women was first articulated by feminist movements, who then spurred governments to act upon something that may have otherwise been marginalised as “women’s issues”.

In other words, far from merely spending their time whining and/or campaigning about bikini waxing (which seems to be the general public perception of what feminists do), feminists were instrumental in bringing about change for the better by motivating government change, turning the media on to feminist issues, and garnering public support to place additional pressure on slow-moving policy change.

As the study’s co-author Mala Htun explained, "Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues. Government action, in turn, sends a signal about national priorities and the meaning of citizenship. The roots of change of progressive social policies lie in civil society."

The recent public discussion about violence against women that was spurred by Jill Meagher’s alleged rape and murder demonstrated that there are still plenty of people who remain unconvinced that violence against women is such a huge problem (the “wrong place, wrong time” brigade and their friends, the “I’ve never hit a woman” set being the worst offenders).

The reality, of course, is rather more grave than the privileged or complacent would have you believe.

Co-author S. Laurel Weldon notes, “Violence against women is a global problem. Research from North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia has found astonishingly high rates of sexual assault, stalking, trafficking, violence in intimate relationships, and other violations of women's bodies and psyches. In Europe it is a bigger danger to women than cancer, with 45 per cent of European women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. Rates are similar in North America, Australia and New Zealand and studies in Asia, Latin America and Africa show that violence towards women there is ubiquitous."

Grim news, to be sure, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Weldon and Htun’s study is a really tangible response to the omnipresent “Has feminism failed?” dialogue; indeed, it’s a vindication.

If the study’s findings are any indication, it looks like feminism is just getting started.


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