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Feminism Works

Today, people across the globe are rising up to demand an end to violence against women (VAW) as part of One Billion Rising. They’re rising because globally one in three women will be beaten, raped, or abused in her lifetime because she is a woman. This ‘feminist tsunami’ on this year’s Valentine’s Day shines a light on the long-standing, diverse and growing feminist movements working to eliminate VAW in every country.  These movements work: unprecedented new research by two US academics, spanning four decades and 70 countries, shows that autonomous feminist movements are the critical factor in countries adopting policies to eliminate VAW.*

The study is the largest ever on VAW. Analysing the data took five years and it encompasses 85 per cent of the world’s population. It finds that “the autonomous mobilization of feminists in domestic and transnational contexts – not leftist parties, women in government, or national wealth – is the critical factor accounting for policy change.” Co-author of the study Mala Htun says: “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 autonomy of the feminist movements and organisations in civil society is a key factor in their effectiveness the study finds. That is, the most effective feminist movements in driving progressive policy change on VAW are independent from both the state and other institutions that have a general focus. They enable women to organise around their own priorities without having to answer to existing concerns. The authors state: “Autonomous movements articulate the social perspectives of marginalized groups, transform social practice, and change public opinion. They drive sweeping policy change as voters, civic leaders, and activists pressure policy makers to respond to their demands and as policy makers themselves become sympathetic to the movement’s goals.”

One Billion Rising comes at an important time in the global fight against VAW. The horror of recent events such as the Delhi and South African gang rapes and murders, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, and the ongoing pattern of sexual violence used as a weapon of war demonstrate why global and national efforts to eliminate VAW must be accelerated. The scourge of VAW in the UK – including the recent Rochdale sex trafficking gang, the 24,000 girls at risk of female genital mutilation, and the 80,000 women who suffer rape and attempted rape every year – brings into sharp focus the fact that all cultures and communities are affected by shocking levels of VAW. The evidence shows what works to bring about progress on these issues – autonomous feminist movements. One Billion Rising today highlights the rising power of these connected movements across the world.

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* The study ‘The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005’ is published in the American Political Science Review (APSR), published by Cambridge University Press for the American Political Science Association (APSA). Available here: http://polisci.unm.edu/common/documents/htun_apsa-article.pdf

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