Power of one Pakistani girl in the fight for women's rights

Washington, DC  - The story of the 15-year-old Pakistani girl shot for wanting to go to school demonstrates the power one individual can have to spark support and change for women's rights, says a Purdue University policy expert.

On Oct. 9 Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head for speaking out about the right of girls to go to school. She is recovering in England. Sometimes, these kinds of focusing events can spark campaigns for change, Weldon says.

"The challenge for a movement wishing to build on this event is that the region where the Taliban is active is so inhospitable to women's rights that it is dangerous to mobilize," she says. "But even here, progress on women's rights can be supported by transnational networks and organizations. This girl's story has garnered international attention, and it will be interesting to see whether any change results. Some scholars have been quite critical of the impact of international attention and activism, but our study shows that as long as these networks are supporting activism of indigenous women and girls themselves they can be powerful and positive forces for change."

Weldon, who also is author of "Protest, Policy and the Problem of Violence Against Women: A Cross-National Comparison," and Mala Htun, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, studied violence against women and government policies from 1975-2005. Pakistan was among the 70 countries studied.

The study analyzed how governments provide services to women, legal reforms and prevention programs, as well as how violence against women differs among countries. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the American Political Science Review in August.

"We've found that gender equality is achieved and sustained with ongoing activism and a vibrant civil society. Independent feminist organizations don't just inspire change; they sustain it because they don't have to show how it advances some other goal unrelated to women's rights. They can just focus on an issue because it is important to women."

For example, a union or political group may advocate for women's rights because it makes sense economically or politically, but an autonomous group empowers activists to confront issues on their own terms.

Weldon also is author of "When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups" and is director of Purdue's Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion.

Additional information