A study recently published in the American Political Science Review declares that feminist activism trumps liberal politics, women's representation in government, and national wealth as the key factor in shaping public-policy attempts to destroy rape culture. If you're feeling skeptical, don't worry: Mala Htun of the University of New Mexico and S. Laurel Weldon of Purdue University have four decades' worth of data collected in 70 countries to prove it.
In "The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in a Global Perspective," Htun and Weldon define "progressive social policy" as one with an "aim to improve the status and opportunities" of women, and "autonomous social movements" as those which "develop oppositional consciousness, imagine new forms of social organization, and mobilize broad societal action." The connection between the two is that without autonomous movement, progressive policy wouldn't exist.
Since 1975, in countries around the world, various acts of feminist activism that weren't directly associated with a political party or with a government structure have been best able to cater to women's actual needs, seeing as they're unhampered by any broader oversight concerns in their work. Feminist movements that function on an individual and not organizational level were described as "critical" in the adoption and acceptance of policies and norms that fought sexual violence throughout the countries spotlighted in the study.
“Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues," Htun explains in a press release. "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 researchers assigned points to each country examined in the study based on its existing efforts to reduce violence - taking into account that violence against women tends to have multiple causes and factors, each of which need to be addressed in full and simultaneously in one region in order to effect change. Countries had the opportunity to earn three points for different types of services to victims, three points for various methods of successful legal reform, one point for administrative reforms, and one point for each policy or program currently in place focused on prevention, the needs of specifically vulnerable populations of women, and/or training government professionals who respond to victims. More points, therefore, illustrate more government action in a region on the topic of rape, assault, or other violence against women.
In cases across various models and regions, feminist activism was a predictor for government action on violence against women.
History shows that government action is almost always preceded by collective action by civilian groups. Feminists organizing specifically around violence against women a hundred — or 20 — years ago would have considered the current cultural discourse on sexual violence here and abroad to be an echo chamber compared to those on the ground now, and it's because the founders of the movement created the language and format in which we now act. The study's text explains:
"Women organizing to advance women’s status have defined the very concept of VAW, raised awareness, and put the issue on national and global policy agendas. Feminist movements — as opposed to movements of women organized for other purposes — were the critical actors. Looking at 36 stable democracies from 1974–94, Weldon (2002a) found that in each of these instances strong, autonomous women’s movements were the first to articulate the issue of violence against women and were the key catalysts for government action. Government action on violence is usually adopted in response to domestic or transnational activists demanding action from the outside. Although individual women, sometimes female legislators, have become spokespersons on the issue, they generally owed their awareness and motivation to their participation in or connection to women’s autonomous organizing (Joachim 1999; Weldon 2011)."
This study serves as a strong reminder to activists and politicians alike that change begins from the bottom up, and not the other way around. In order to make violence against women a critical political issue, feminists had to come together to rally for government support in this movement. Now, we need political action to create a more complete socioeconomic consensus on how this culture — and this world — feels about sexual violence. In the meantime, it will be up to us to change hearts and minds.