Policies combating violence against women vary widely from one country to the next. Studies trying to account for these differences have pointed to a variety of cultural, economic, and political factors. But relatively little is known about how the activities of civil society drive progress on this human rights issue.

A new analysis by political scientists Mala Htun of the University of New Mexico and S. Laurel Weldon of Purdue University shows just how great an impact civil society has in this area. In a comprehensive study of policies in 70 countries, they found that mobilization by autonomous feminist movements has the most enduring impact on policies to eliminate violence against women.

The study is part of a larger project supported by the National Science Foundation to examine laws and policies related to gender equality around the world. In addition to the issue of violence against women, Htun and Weldon have looked at areas such as reproductive rights, family law, maternity and parental leave, child care, and mechanisms to promote political representation.

Htun and Weldon assembled a research team to fill out a giant survey, tracking policy development over a 30-year period for each of the 70 countries. Using information from government documents, reports from international organizations, and secondary literature, the team put together a global picture of policies combating violence against women.

Progressive policy change regarding this issue comes about not just from any social movement of women, Htun says, but by “movements explicitly trying to elevate women’s status and expand women’s opportunities”—and that are independent from political parties and government.

One finding from the study that bucks conventional wisdom, Htun says, is that getting more women elected to political office did not correlate with more gender-equitable outcomes.

“I think the findings are enormously important,” says Anne-Marie Goetz, chief advisor for peace and security for UN Women. “Policymakers around the world are constantly looking for the magic bullet, the technocratic solution that’s going to make all the difference. But what [Htun and Weldon] are saying is … that the only places where you see a change in policymaking—and in results—is where you have a significant political constituency for change.”

The current study, along with the others in the project, illustrates that gender equity is not a single issue but many different unique issues, Htun says. For example, the politics of family law are determined more by the relationship between the state and organized religion than by feminist movements. “Our main argument in the project is that the politics driving change differs across issues,” Htun says. “These issues are completely different in regard to the actors at stake, the interests at stake, and therefore what it takes to get policies changed.”

Goetz says that data-driven analyses such as this one are “absolutely crucial” for policymakers, so that they can know the conditions under which they can achieve progressive policy outcomes. Htun and Weldon’s study “strengthens the argument for building the capacity of women’s organizations and ensuring that they have an operating environment that enables them to advance their work,” Goetz says.

Mala Htun & S. Laurel Weldon, “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005,” American Political Science Review 106, 2012.