Feminist Mobilisation and Progressive Policy Change: Why Governments Take Action to Combat Violence Against Women

S. Laurel Weldon, Mala Htun


This study analyses policies on violence against women in 70 countries from 1975 to 2005. It finds that the most important and consistent factor driving policy change is feminist activism. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or national wealth. It also finds that strong, vibrant domestic feminist movements use international and regional conventions and agreements as levers to influence policy-making.

Some national governments have adopted a wide variety of measures to address violence against women, including legal reform, public education campaigns, and support for shelters and rape crisis centres, but other governments have done little to confront the problem. What accounts for these differences in policy?

This study addresses that question using an index that assigns higher values to those governments that address more types of violence using a variety of interventions. Examples of the various types of programmes include services to victims, legal reforms, attention to vulnerable populations, training for professionals, and prevention programmes. However, due to limited data, the index does not capture variation in the implementation of policies against violence, or in policy effectiveness (which depends on sound design, state capacity, political will, and other factors).

The study finds that a strong, autonomous feminist movement is both substantively and statistically significant as a predictor of government action to redress violence against women. 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. Other findings include the following:

  • The strongest feminist movements are associated with an additional area of policy action on violence against women: 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.
  • Latin American countries’ scores are higher than those of many European countries during the study period, illustrating that national wealth or lengthy experience with democratic governance cannot account for state action on violence against women.
  • Women’s status agencies, international norms, and other factors further strengthen feminist efforts. Movements work within and across national borders, and demand the creation of new institutions to encode their ideas and to advance feminist interests.
  • Feminist movements _/ as opposed to movements of women organised for other purposes _/ were the critical actors especially when they were autonomous from organisations that did not have sex equality as their primary goal, such as political parties, unions, and the like.

Why is the movements’ autonomy important? The authors highlight three reasons:

  • 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 (Weldon 2011).
  • The issue of violence against women often challenges established gender roles. It is difficult for legislative insiders to take on social change issues without the political support of broader mobilisation.
  • Women can more easily get violence against women and other gender issues recognised as priorities in autonomous feminist organisations.


Weldon, S. L., and Htun, M., (2013). Feminist mobilisation and progressive policy change: why governments take action to combat violence against women. Gender and Development 21:2, 231-247.