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date: 18 January 2018

Foreign Intervention and Violence Against Women

Summary and Keywords

Violence against women represents the most popular gender related issue for global women’s activists, international development agencies, and human rights advocates. Although state responsiveness to violence against women was previously seen by feminist political scientists as only a domestic issue, international studies scholars have begun to theorize how states’ responsiveness is shaped by foreign interventions by global actors. As countries around the world began to adopt new policies opposing violence against women, social scientists adept in both feminist theory and social science methods began the comparative study of these reforms. These studies pointed to the importance of the ideological and institutional context as structural impediments or opportunities as well as suggested the more effective strategic alliances between activists, politicians, and civil servants. Those studies that attempt a deeper analysis rely upon indirect measures of effectiveness of policies and interventions, such as judging policy on how feminist it is and judging reforms based on the recognition of the relationship between violence against women and gender based hierarchies. Through these measures, feminist social scientists can estimate the response’s impact on the sex–gender system, and indirectly on violence against women, which is seen to be a result of the sex–gender system. The next challenge is differentiating between the various types of intervention and their different impacts. These various types of intervention include the “blame and shame,” in which activists hold countries up against standards; bilateral or transnational networking among activists; the widespread availability of international funding; and traditional diplomacy or warfare.

Keywords: violence against women, state responsiveness, foreign interventions, feminist theory, sex–gender system, transnational networking


More than two decades have passed since non-Western feminists issued their first postcolonial critiques of universal claims about women’s oppression (e.g. Spivak 1988; Mohanty 1991). They argued that such claims, even from well-intentioned feminists from the Global North, have justified a history of self-serving interventions into non-Western contexts that have proven disastrous for local women. Collapsing the differences among women from the South and seeing all of “their” problems as the same as those in the North has meant that development projects mimicked older colonial projects that were justified with claims of helping the local women as part of modernizing campaigns. Over the last few decades, it has become clearer that many of these colonial interventions ignored and replaced local gender structures that empowered women. They also provoked nationalist resistance, often inscribed on to women’s lives or bodies, leading to the re-institutionalization of even worse gender injustice. For example, sati (the ritualized burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre practiced among some Hindus of a certain caste in only some regions of India) was used as an indication of Indian lack of civilization in order to justify British colonialism and obfuscated the more prevalent problems of domestic violence and femicide in India and in Britain (Narayan 1997). This Western gaze reframed the practices as traditional of India, a neotraditionalism nationalists would want to protect as resistance to the colonizers. Observers, now also Western feminists, have continued to raise important questions about the more recent and more aggressive interventions, especially by the United States under the George W. Bush administration. For example, Michaele Ferguson (2005) shows that the incorporation of women’s issues into US foreign policy relies on the myth that women’s problems have been solved in the United States and that Other women are damsels-in-distress in need of US rescue.

This review essay takes on these questions of gender and intervention by looking at one subset of issues – violence against women. It employs the term “intervention” to mean something broader than armed power used abroad, the typical meaning for nonfeminist international relations. Intervention here means the projection of any external force into domestic politics, in this case, specifically the politics of violence against women. As elaborated below, intervention can include foreign policy targeted to addressing violence against women abroad, donors’ decisions to fund women’s organizing to oppose violence against women, and even the development of human rights norms. What are not included in this concept of intervention are the unintended consequences of larger transnational processes, such as neoliberal globalization. These, of course, can have profound effects on policies towards gender in other countries or on the incidence of violence against women, for example, by calling for the privatization of social services and undermining social structures and cultural norms that afforded some protections. These constitute the broader context of foreign intervention, raising questions about the commitments of entities such as the United States that claim to want to help reduce violence against women, but are beyond the scope of this essay.

The essay begins with the assertion that the international studies scholarship on these questions has made an empirical question out of the normative critiques of intervention. In essence, most studies revolve, often implicitly, around the question of the impact of intervention. Inverting the postcolonial critique, the question becomes whether intervention can help women. This is, of course, not a simple question. It remains a challenge to evaluate the consequences of intervention for a wide range of differently situated women. As pointed out by postcolonial feminists, what it means to “help” women is a loaded question. This review lays out the approaches to these questions and concerns that international studies scholars consider in order to summarize their insights about gender and intervention. It builds upon many of the claims about the literature and frameworks for analysis outlined in Johnson (2009). In brief, this essay finds that violence against women politics in most contexts is increasingly shaped by intervention, that intervention has been most effective at shaping women’s NGO discourse while policy makers remain resistant to the feminist critiques, and that meaningful change requires more than the establishment of global feminist norms and transnational feminist networking.

Violence Against Women as an Indication

Because the literature exploring gender and intervention is now so vast, this essay disaggregates the question by focusing on one set of gender related issues as suggested by Amy Mazur’s (2002) Theorizing Feminist Policy. Violence against women represents the most popular gender related issue for global women’s activists, international development agencies, and human rights advocates since the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing. As argued below, although state responsiveness to violence against women was previously seen by feminist political scientists as only a domestic issue, international studies scholars have begun to theorize how states’ responsiveness is shaped by foreign interventions by global actors.

The essay refers to “violence against women” to elicit the composite concept that linked together various violence against women issues – such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, torture of political prisoners, and dowry deaths – for transnational feminist activists in the 1990s. Specifically, this essay focuses on domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment, as these are issues that are broadly understood not to be culturally or politically specific, and because, in many non-Western contexts, activists have tended to combine these issues. The inclusion of sexual harassment as a form of violence against women might surprise some US observers because US jurisprudence constructs sexual harassment not as bodily harm, but as a form of discrimination requiring civil remedies. In contrast, for example, the first French group to organize against sexual harassment was tellingly named the European Association against Violence towards Women at Work (L’Association européenne contre les violences faites aux femmes au travail; Saguay 2002:250). The choice to focus on domestic and sexual violence creates a bias against research on Africa and the Middle East, where most of the focus has been on female genital mutilation (which is a result of other biases). Although there has been a move among many global women’s activists to talk about “gender based violence” or “gender violence,” “violence against women” is the term most often used in this literature and most accurately reflects the essay’s limited scope. A more inclusive review of the violence against women literature would be an excellent next step for scholars of gender and intervention. As the essay is concerned with politics, it examines “violence against women politics,” the contestation over what constitutes violence against women (or forms of violence against women) and over what obligations the state and society have to respond to the problem.

The international studies literature on violence against women is a good indication of the larger debate on gender and intervention as it includes both skepticism and more optimistic perspectives. On the one hand, some observers of interventions aimed at addressing violence against women have come from a postcolonial stance and found similar problems, especially in postcommunist Europe (e.g. Olsen 1997; Hemment 2004). On the other hand, Keck and Sikkink’s discipline-shifting Activists Beyond Borders (1998) proposed that activists had created new, more inclusive, and more responsive ways of intervening through transnational movements that bring foreign actors to bear on local contexts upon the request of local activists (also Moghadam 2005; Weldon 2006a). From this latter perspective, by the mid-1990s, there was a kind of global feminist consensus on violence against women that connected global women’s activists from the Global North and South through a new understanding linking gender justice with human rights (Johnson 2009: ch. 2). The broad concept of “violence against women,” which summed up a myriad of issues of interest to those from both regions, allowed for solidarity between movements because all forms of violence were equated, none exoticized (Weldon 2006a). Facilitated by new “norms of inclusivity” and a respect for autonomous self-organizing, for example, Indian women working against dowry murders could link up with Western activists working against domestic violence.

From Domestic to International Violence Against Women Politics

Over the last two decades, as countries around the world began to adopt new policies opposing violence against women, social scientists adept in both feminist theory and social science methods began the comparative study of these reforms. The earliest of these studies tended to focus on Western industrialized democracies and to see reform as a domestic process, that is, a process which was determined by factors and processes within the one state (see Table 1 for a summary of the studies frequently referenced in this essay). Dobash and Dobash (1992) and Elman (1996), focusing on the US, Britain, and Sweden, highlighted the greater number of entry points in the more decentralized US political system. S. Laurel Weldon (2002), in a study of 36 industrialized democracies from 1974 to 1994, found that national governments are most responsive to demands for policy change where there are both insiders (a state apparatus charged with promoting women’s status) and outsiders (a strong, independent women’s movement) (Weldon 2002:5; see also Mazur 2002: ch. 9). Even studies that looked at developing contexts, such as India (Bush 1992) and elsewhere in the Global South (Heise et al. 1994), saw violence against women reform as a result of interactions between primarily domestic women’s movements and the state. Together, these studies pointed to the importance of the ideological and institutional context as structural impediments or opportunities as well as suggested the kinds of strategic alliances between activists, politicians, and civil servants that were more likely to be effective. They were applying and elaborating mainstream social science theories about structure and building on feminist frameworks such as the “triangle of empowerment” – “the interplay between […] the women’s movement, feminist politicians and feminist civil servants (femocrats)” (Vargas and Wieringa 1998:3).

When these earlier studies weighed the impact of transnational forces, they found them incidental. Weldon’s (2002:206) cross-national study suggested that, up through the 1990s, the impact of transnational feminist organizing was only indirect – through the national or subnational women’s movements which might draw upon ideas and tactics they learned through contacts with international activists – while the states retained sovereignty on the issue of violence against women. In Mazur’s (2002:158) study of European reforms, extra-national institutions played a role in getting policy on the agenda and defining the problem rather than actually formulating policy. In the Global South, there was a little more impact from international factors, especially as a result of “the UN Decade for Women which focused attention on the role of women in international development” and the new availability of international funds for women’s NGOs (Heise et al. 1994:1170).

Table 1 Studies of foreign intervention



Role of intervention

Bush (1992)

US and India (1970s–1980s)


Dobash and Dobash (1992)

UK and US (1960s–1980s)


Heise et al. (1994)

Global South (1970s–1980s)


Elman (1996)

US and Sweden (1970s–1990s)


Araujo et al. (2000)

Chile (1990s)

Partial (especially introducing the issue)

Mazur (2002)

Edinburgh, Sweden, Spain, France (1970s–1990s)


Weldon (2002)

36 industrialized democracies (1974–1994)


Al-Ali (2003)

Middle East (1980s–1990s)

Important (international funding, UN interest)

Luciano et al. (2005)

Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico

Important (international agencies working with govt and NGOs formulate policy)

Hester (2005)

China and England

Important (global norms and transnational networking)

Snajdr (2005)



Britton (2006)

South Africa (1990–2003)


Fabian (2006)

Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia

Important (global norms and transnational networking)

Johnson and Brunell (2006)

11 postcommunist European cases (1989–2004)

Important (funding and EU membership pressure)

Kantola (2006)

Finland and UK

Important (EU discourse)

Merry (2006)

India, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Hawaii

Important (human rights norms)

Zippel (2006)

US, EU, Germany

Important (US ideas, EU pressure)

As studies began to analyze more recent mobilization and reform, foreign intervention came to play a more prominent role. A study of domestic violence policy making throughout 1990s Chile saw the international women’s movement as a crucial factor in introducing the issue (Araujo et al. 2000:140). A comparative study of Latin American countries published five years later (Luciano et al. 2005) told an even more interventionist story:

International agencies have played an important role, in collaboration with government agencies and NGOs, in the design of the legal framework for domestic violence policies at the international and national level, in the design of national plans of action, and in the implementation of public policies. International agencies have provided governments and NGOs with technical assistance, donations and loans. (2005:129)

In places as diverse as India, China, Fiji, and Hong Kong, Sally Merry (2006) found that “[h]uman rights are clearly making a significant contribution to global reform projects concerned with violence against women. The ideas produced in a global setting through international deliberations are being appropriated by national political leaders and NGO activists” (2006:218). Another study highlighted the importance of these norms and transnational networking in China, especially following the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing (Hester 2005). These interventions shaped the linguistic frameworks and the reliance on gender analysis, even leading the official Chinese women’s federation to prioritize the issue of domestic violence (2005:452). This newer literature was marked not just by claims of the increased significance of intervention, but also a sense that it was mostly positive.

Following communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, observers were even more adamant – and more critical – about the role of intervention in violence against women politics. Frances Olsen (1997) set off alarm bells about the army of Western feminists, seemingly most concerned with promoting themselves, charging into the region with their Western experiences and approaches to women’s issues, especially violence against women. Many academics wondered if these feminist interventions, especially the availability of funding for organizations focusing on violence against women, were prioritizing violence against women over issues of more concern to the local women (see also Ishkanian 2004; Ghodsee 2004; Hemment 2004; Hrycak 2006).

By the new millennium, the importance of intervention had become more apparent in Western industrialized democracies and the Middle East, contexts that had seemed to be more immune. In her comparative analysis of feminist discourses about the state in Finland and the United Kingdom, Johanna Kantola (2006) argues that domestic violence politics in these contexts cannot be understood without also considering both the subnational (e.g. Scotland) and supranational (the European Union). She finds that EU discourse about domestic violence – that became fairly powerful by the late 1990s – “offered important support for feminist discourse in Finland” (2006:152). Similarly, Kathrin Zippel’s (2006) comparison of sexual harassment policies in the United States, the European Union, and Germany highlights the role of the US ideas and policies on the evolution of sexual harassment policy in Europe and the European Union in pushing member states to enact reform. In the Middle East, where global norms have met more resistance, foreign intervention began to be important in raising the issue of violence against women. In an analysis of women’s groups in the Middle East, Al-Ali (2003) found that violence against women was addressed by only a small number of groups and only recently in Egypt and Jordan, but activists in Turkey have set up shelters (2003:227). The rise of these kinds of (violence against women) issue-oriented women’s groups is recent and, it appears, shaped by the availability of international funding and UN interest in the topic, although neither in a simple way nor without negative consequences (2003:224–5).

Still, not all studies saw violence against women politics as necessarily transnational. Britton’s (2006) examination of anti–violence against women activism among community based and nongovernmental organizations in South Africa from 1990 to 2003 suggests that the policy process is shaped by domestic factors (race and the transition) and driven by local activism, which is only partially impacted by the availability and distribution of foreign funds. Much of the international funding went directly to the new post-apartheid government. In Eurasia, despite the intervention by US-funded projects, at least some local groups shaped their response to domestic violence around local discourses of ethnicity and religion rather than transnational feminism (Snajdr 2005).

Overall, however, the comparatively informed studies of violence against women politics show that intervention has become more important to violence against women politics in many different places around the globe. There are three implicit hypotheses as to why and when intervention comes to matter. Most significantly, it seemingly has to do with timing. In her comparison of transnational influences on domestic violence policy, Marianne Hester (2005:447) found that “transnational influences have been much more important in the more recent developments regarding domestic violence in China, than in relation to the (much earlier) developments in England.” Foreign intervention tends to matter more following the linking of violence against women with women’s rights and human rights in the early 1990s and the 1995 UN conference on women. These international developments strengthened the international norms against violence against women, giving new legitimacy to local activism. For instance, while the domestic violence discourse had been more developed in the United Kingdom and the issue was only raised in Finland with this new international pressure (Kantola 2006: ch. 6), now even the British are using the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to leverage for even more reform (Hester 2005:449). The commitment of major international funders – both governmental and private – to women’s rights and violence against women also created new funding opportunities.

Also important is the regime type, which overlaps somewhat with the timing. The consolidated democracies of Western Europe had stronger women’s movements, most of whom had raised the issue of violence against women before it came to the international agenda. As these states tended to respond more easily to such domestic societal pressure, they were more likely to enact reform without the need for international pressure. As these states are more likely to have functioning implementation and enforcement mechanisms, the reforms enacted are more likely to be put into use. The inverse also appears true. The closed, centralized party-state in China, even with the unique pressure of having had the 1995 UN conference on women, was slower than democratizing contexts (e.g. Latin American) to feel the impact of transnational influences (Hester 2005).

Finally, Sally Merry (2006) suggests that the impact of intervention has to do with sovereignty. Human rights norms infringe upon sovereignty, and countries with much sovereignty, such as the United States, can ignore human rights norms (Mertus 2004). International pressure is harder to ignore when a state has less military might, less structural power within international organizations such as the IMF or World Bank, and a smaller economy. As “human rights discourse contains implicit assumptions about the nature of civilized and backward societies,” countries seeking international approval may even embrace international norms (perhaps only superficially) in order to appear “civilized” (Merry 2006:220–1). In contrast, activists in countries with strong nationalist movements are less likely to thrive or to advance reform. This is true not just for Islamic states in the Middle East or Eurasia where activists must contend with breaking resurgent (national-)religious taboos, but in countries such as South Africa where (black African) nationalism mobilizes anticolonial and (imagined) traditional discourses (Al-Ali 2003; Snajdr 2005; Britton 2006).

Assessing Effectiveness: Intervention’s Impact on Mobilization, Discourse, Policy Reform, and Implementation and Enforcement

For all analyses of violence against women politics, an essential part of the argument, albeit often not well elaborated, is the question of how to assess and compare the effectiveness of policies and interventions. These studies employ different measures to ascertain whether the intervention is leading to a “good” or “bad” outcome, what is summarized here as “effectiveness.” In the language of positivist social science, these studies have different dependent variables used to approximate effectiveness.

Several of the studies look primarily at the mobilization in opposition to violence against women. Britton’s (2006) analysis of violence against women politics in South Africa is an examination of the quality of women’s activism: the degree to which women’s activism has become “NGOized” (or professionalized and deradicalized) and the extent to which activists have been co-opted by the state. Others are interested in the degree to which the issue has been taken up by women’s groups (e.g. Heise et al. 1994; Al-Ali 2003). Another study suggests that the quality of women’s organizing against domestic violence must be contextualized within an understanding of the historical and cultural understandings of the relationship between the state and society (Johnson 2006). In contrast to the United States, where nongovernmental organizations tend to see themselves as an autonomous check on state power, most other contexts are more statist: organizations outside the state tend to rely heavily on state funding and see the state as a potential partner.

The studies focusing on mobilization reflect concerns of social movement theory about the difficulty in mobilizing and organizing people into movements (e.g. Tarrow 1994; McAdam et al. 1996). None simply counts the number of organizations, as this does not reflect the strength of mobilization, but some try to use other measures of approximation (see Weldon 2002; Johnson and Brunel 2006). Many also raise questions about the conditions under which such movements are likely to be effective. The implicit assumption is that such activism may lead to reform – that “better” activism is more likely to create changes. The research question about intervention is whether intervention promotes or inhibits activism, as a way of getting at the question of whether intervention can help women.

Other studies focus on shifting discourses of violence against women employed either by activists or adopted by the state. In their study of Chile, Araujo et al. (2000:138) focus on the process through which domestic violence became an issue for groups and then for the government. Merry (2006) examines the appropriation of the global norms of women’s rights and violence against women by local elites and grassroots women’s groups (see also Hester 2005; Fabian 2006). Hester (2005) focuses on linguistic frameworks and the prioritization of violence against women to examine transnational influences on English and Chinese women’s activism. Kantola (2006: ch. 2) explicitly argues for systematically comparing discourses (rather than policy reform) because she thinks that it will better capture the changes over time and the differences among subgroups within states.

As Kantola (2006:23) explains, some of these studies build upon deconstructivist (Foucauldian) approaches. Others reflect the more positivist constructivism in social science that explores how problems are socially constructed. For policy issues such as domestic violence and sexual harassment, the question is one of identifying a problem that is hidden, actively ignored, or explained away as an individual misfortune. For rape, the struggle is to redefine a problem that most societies have condemned so as to include other forms of sexual violence (such as marital or date rape, rape of “promiscuous” women) as well as to eliminate the often insurmountable and unwarranted procedural hurdles (Rhode 1989:246). For social movement theorists, these are questions of “framing” – how a policy is defined and what remedies are recommended – that become central to whether social movements are effective at attaining broad-based support and alliances with policy makers. For policy theorists, the focus is on the adoption of new policy definitions on to the institutional policy making agenda.

Most studies include some consideration of whether any legislation has been passed – what I call policy reform. Typical measures of such state policy reform for domestic violence include the following: (1) separate criminal law provisions that specifically pertain to domestic violence; (2) recognition of marital rape as a crime; (3) separate legislation specifically addressing domestic violence; (4) sponsorship of an event or public information campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence; (5) availability of restraining orders and/or orders of protection for victims of domestic violence; and (6) training for police to intervene more effectively in domestic violence incidents and/or policies requiring police to keep statistics on these interventions (see Weldon 2002:13; Merry 2006: ch. 5; Johnson and Brunell 2006:577).

Yet, all these studies recognize that simplistic, quantitative measures of such reform are insufficient. Weldon (2002), in the study with the largest number of cases, quantifies “government responsiveness” to the problem of violence against women, but this is set within the context of examining the role of women’s movement activities (2002:7, 30). Similarly, Johnson and Brunell (2006) employ the concept of a “domestic violence regime” to compare across postcommunist Europe by looking simultaneously at the governmental and nongovernmental responses to domestic violence. They argue that, considering the communist history of heavy Communist Party–state involvement in people’s lives and extreme limitation for social groups not aligned with the state, government response by itself is not a success.

Of course, passing legislation does not ensure change in most states marked heavily by corruption and inefficiency. Luciano et al. (2005) use the incorporation of funding for domestic violence responsiveness into ministerial budget lines, as would be expected following the passage of legislation. Others look at other measures of implementation and enforcement. Zippel (2006) traces the policy path, the evolution of policy, examining not just the formal laws and policies, but implementation and enforcement. For the issue of sexual harassment, her study looks for these “dimensions of implementation”: “(1) internal workplace policies and procedures; (2) prevention efforts such as training and awareness programs; and (3) agencies and services outside the workplace that implement, monitor, and enforce laws” (2006:38). She also looks for the incorporation of the issue by unions, into collective agreements negotiated by employers and workers’ representatives, by insurance companies (in the US), and by informal or formal women’s networks. Several studies examine many of these pieces, trying to capture the whole process which has been summarized here as mobilization, discursive politics, policy reform, and implementation and enforcement (e.g. Bush 1992; Araujo et al. 2000; Mazur 2002; Johnson 2009).

Taken together, this literature indicates how much the impact of intervention varies by stage in the process. Virtually all of the studies of violence against women politics – even those that did not see much of a role of intervention (e.g. Weldon 2002:26; Mazur 2002:158; Heise et al. 1994:1170) – saw an impact of the global feminist language of violence against women on domestic, if not local, activism. These studies establish that new ideas about violence against women have permeated through NGO activists, in larger cities and on the national stage, in the Global North, East, and South. These women’s NGO activists must now speak the language of women’s rights and understand violence against women as a violation of those rights in order to be seen as legitimate advocates for women in both international and national contexts. According to Merry (2006a:218), “[h]uman rights ideas about violence against women are, in a far more limited and fragmentary way, [even] percolating into local communities [in India, China, Fiji, and Hong Kong].” Her question of the penetration of discourse beyond elite cadres of NGO activists is one that needs to be further researched in most contexts.

Least effective, according to these studies, is intervention’s impact on the reform of implementation and practice. In states seeking international approval without thriving civil societies, such as those in postcommunist Europe, foreign intervention has tended to promote formal policy reform, but has left NGOs relatively deradicalized and underfunded and there has been little actual change in the behaviors of law enforcement and state social workers (Johnson and Brunell 2006; Hrycak 2006). In authoritarian, sovereign states such as China, foreign intervention may advance social activism, but only as a deradicalized, social service–providing form, creating little discursive change or real policy reform (Hester 2005). In some contexts in the Global South, intervention may support activism and even policy reform, but even with international support, the corruption and state weakness may undermine implementation and enforcement of the new laws, especially in the face of anticolonial nationalist pressures. For example, Luciano et al. (2005) found that Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico were not incorporating domestic violence funding into their ministerial budgets, even when responding to foreign pressure for formal legal reform. The evidence suggests that countries with less sovereignty are more likely to bow to foreign pressures for reform, but that does not mean that the reforms will be meaningful.

Judging Effectiveness: The Sex–Gender System

In assessing the impact of intervention on the various stages in the process, these scholars sidestep the underlying, central feminist concern by assuming that taking steps to foster mobilization, discursive shifts, policy reform, or enforcement or implementation is a good outcome in itself. None of these studies of violence against women politics directly addresses the actual, long-term impact on the incidence of violence against women, not just for women who are currently experiencing the problem, but for all women (or those raised as women). Bush (1992), for example, recognizes this weakness by critiquing social movement theory for defining success simply as gaining institutionalized access or policy reform, ignoring “the ways that liberal democratic states themselves are structured by gender inequality” (1992:589). Even a lesser form of effectiveness of various approaches – the protection of women from immediate harm – has proven challenging for comparative analysis. Only in more reformed contexts has there been more systematic analysis of this type of effectiveness, e.g. of policies such as protection orders and must-arrest policies. Both scholars and activists have found these policies to be problematic, especially for women – such as women of color in the US – who face a history of police abuse (see, for example, Matthews 1994; Coker 2004), creating much debate and not much clarity. As Laurel Weldon (2002) explains, examining these types of reforms requires more depth – such as the systematic analysis of victims’ reports about their experiences in shelters and with the criminal justice system – than is often possible in comparative study.

Those studies of violence against women politics that attempt a kind of deeper analysis rely upon indirect measures of the effectiveness of the violence against women politics. Mazur (2002) explicitly judges policy on how feminist it is. She develops the following categories (policies must include three out of five to be considered feminist):

  • policy that aims to improve “women’s rights, status, or situation to be in line with men’s” as specific to the cultural context

  • policy that aims to reduce or eliminate gender based hierarchies/patriarchy

  • policy that addresses both the public and private, problematizing the boundary

  • policy that focuses on both men and women

  • policies that employ “ideas that can be readily associated with a recognized feminist group, movement, or individual actors in a particular national context” (2002:30–1)

In the chapter specifically addressing violence against women policies, she emphasizes the judgment of reforms based on the recognition of the relationship between violence against women and gender based hierarchies (Mazur 2002:159–60). Zippel 2006:18–21) builds on Mazur, using this measure to assess whether policies are feminist: whether the laws are gender neutral or recognize gendered power.

The idea for these scholars is that, by judging the intention or end goal of the response to violence against women, feminist social scientists can estimate the response’s impact on the sex–gender system and indirectly on violence against women, which is seen to be a result of the sex–gender system. This approach builds upon a central social scientific insight about gender: that it is a social structure, “a mode of social organizations, a set of relationships that position people relative to others” constituted by norms, rules, and social, political, and economic institutions (Weldon 2002:179). To be feminist, i.e. likely to contribute toward eliminating violence against women, requires that the response challenge this gender social structure. Many responses, such as mandatory arrest or victimless prosecution for women, may provide some short-term relief for women currently facing domestic violence, but as Bush (1992:602) points out in the cases of India and the US, such policies are often built upon the belief that women are inherently vulnerable to men’s violence, i.e. based on the belief that women need protection because of the essential nature of their sex. To challenge the sex–gender system, these policies must be augmented with more extensive reforms of societies’ norms, rules, and institutions that constitute women as vulnerable, such as addressing the inequality of women’s wages, the overrepresentation of men in the upper echelons of political and economic power, the stinginess of welfare provisions making wives-mothers dependent upon their husbands, and the gender norms that script women to be overly responsible for what happens in their families. For Bush (1992:602), one must evaluate responses to violence against women in terms of whether they balance protection with empowerment; a policy such as mandatory arrest may be feminist if it also gives women more power in the relationship.

In addition to this normative question about whether the responses are feminist, there is also a question about the empirical effectiveness of such feminist ways of seeing violence against women. While social movement theorists tend to argue that new frames of problems articulated by social movements are likely to be effective at influencing reform when they resonate with already existing norms, Merry (2006) suggests that the framing of violence against women must balance feminist and resonant ways of understanding the problem. If foreign intervention pushes such radical notions of violence against women that they are seen as anathema to most in the local culture – for example, the idea that women have a right to complete sexual autonomy and pleasure – then there is likely to be no reform and even explicit nationalist resistance. If, on the other hand, foreign intervention advocates only the protection of women because they are essentially vulnerable, an idea that resonates in most societies, then the reforms proposed are not likely to address the underlying problem. There must be a compromise for reform to be enacted; activists must link their claims to (neo)traditional ideas but also simultaneously assert more radical claims, such as about women’s human rights.

Several studies negotiate this complex terrain. One considered study is Zippel’s (2006:18–21) comparison of German and US sexual harassment policy. She argues that the less feminist and less extensive German policies are a result of the reliance on traditional ideas of protecting wives and mothers, whereas the US focus on providing the same treatment for women and men has meant more feminist and more extensive policies against sexual harassment. More directly linking these questions to intervention, Krizsan et al. (2005) found that the EU’s new gender mainstreaming approach has unintentionally neutralized the radical critiques by women’s movements of gender structures, justifying generic equality offices replacing agencies designed to promote women’s status. In turn, “NGOs in Central Europe found that by moving to a gender-neutral territory of interpretation at least they were more likely to be accepted in governmental-level deliberations about policy” (Fabian 2006:136). This resulted in legislation in the region that tends to be gender neutral, critiquing “family violence” (any violence in the family) rather than domestic violence (violence against women based in the unequal status of women and men). As Merry (2006) suggests, meaningful change has come when activists manage to challenge domestic violence in a way that balances neotraditional gender beliefs resonant in these societies while simultaneously challenging them. For example, activists achieved some limited reforms in Russia when they talked to the powers that be in the language of protecting women and families while simultaneously empowering their women clients and pursuing more radical societal change (Johnson 2007, 2009). In studies of local responses to violence against women less affected by global women’s activists and feminist rhetoric, researchers find that groups or individuals tend to blame an Other, such as the Russian occupiers in Kazakhstan or the Romani in Romania (Snajdr 2005; Woodcock 2007).

Comparing Types of Intervention: Blame and Shame, Transnational Feminist Networking, Funding, and Conventional Statecraft

Having established that intervention has come to play a bigger role, and then backtracked to clarify the crucial analytic categories, the next challenge is to tease apart the differences between the various types of intervention and their different impacts. One type of intervention is what activists and theorists tend to call “blame and shame,” in which activists hold countries up against standards, with reports of injustices to elicit a new sense of responsibility. Human rights law, such as CEDAW and the 1999 Optional Protocol, and even the international consensus documents like the 1995 Beijing Declaration can create a new global norm – “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors within a given territory” – that can influence beliefs, behavior, and sometimes even the identity of individuals, groups, and institutions (Katzenstein 1996:5; Checkel 1998). Illustrating the lesser impact that such norms have when they are not seen as global, Abigail Saguy’s (2002) analysis of the transatlantic traffic in sexual harassment policy shows the challenges faced by French activists in countering the common understanding that critiquing sexual harassment was not only “un-French,” but also “American.” Similarly, Al-Ali’s (2003) study of the Middle East found that, in all cases, the “denunciation of playing up to western expectations and being alienated from their own culture, is a very powerful weapon in the hands of conservative Islamist and secular nationalist forces. Their accusations work to discredit women’s organizations and to limit their discursive spaces and actual activities” (2003:221). More recently, after the passage of the 1995 Beijing Platform, and in places less resistant to what are still sometimes seen as Western norms, Merry (2006) found a significant effect: local elites and activists were actively drawing upon global norms, and when there were local institutions designed to recognize human rights – strengthened by the global norms – these strategies were fairly effective. For all three studies, success was dependent on the ability of activists to “translate” these norms into the vernacular, “adjusting the rhetoric and structure of these programs or interventions to local circumstances” (Merry 2006:135).

Another type of intervention is bilateral or transnational networking among activists, often the mechanism through which norms are diffused. Bilateral networking, facilitated by a common language and legal system, was essential for the early attention to domestic violence in both the United States and Great Britain (Hester 2005:449; see also Dobash and Dobash 1992). More widely and more recently, it is transnational networking that seems to promote the most reform. In analyzing domestic violence reforms in East Central Europe, Fabian (2006) found global feminist human rights norms and informal and ideational networks to be essential to the spreading of ideas about domestic violence. In a quantitative study of postcommunist Europe, Brunell and Johnson (in press) found that such anti–violence against women transnational networks explain policy reform better than other common explanations, arguing that cross-border links between NGOs and the West, cultivated in part by funding from the European Union, have provided a mechanism for the diffusion of anti–domestic violence policies. In her analysis of women’s organizing in the Middle East, Al-Ali (2003:225) found that these kinds of issue-oriented networks “typify a new organizational form in the history of the women’s movement in that they consist of associational linkages, in which the various groups maintain their autonomy and, to some extent, acknowledge the differences among each other.” Weldon (2006a) found this to be true of the global movement opposing violence against women in general: women’s movements are more inclusive and responsive than earlier global feminism. Recognizing the peculiarities of these women-focused “transnational advocacy networks” (Keck and Sikkink 1998), Valentine Moghadam (2005:4) labels the vehicle “transnational feminist networks,” “structures organized above the national level that unite women from three or more countries around a common agenda, such as […] violence against women” that have been remarkably successful. In contrast to what Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998: ch. 5) call “the boomerang,” in which local organizations can circumvent a recalcitrant state through finding international allies to pressure intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations to establish new norms, Zippel (2006:120) argues that such transnational networking has reached a new stage in which, as in a game of Ping-Pong, activism and initiatives bounce back and forth between the supranational and the national.

A third type of intervention into violence against women politics is the widespread availability of international funding. By the mid- to late 1990s, violence against women, especially domestic violence, became an issue that many donors wanted to fund. These included state aid agencies, such as USAID, as well as intergovernmental or private donors such as UNIFEM, the Ford Foundation, Open Society International, and even US based cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris (Altria). Questions about the impact of funding on domestic violence politics have been especially acute in postcommunist countries as the new commitment to funding violence against women initiatives arose simultaneously with the collapse of communism. In a cross-national study of eleven cases in the region, Johnson and Brunell (2006) found such foreign assistance intervention could sometimes catalyze reform as well as mobilization, albeit more effectively when there already existed local interest among women’s groups in the issue. In comparing the impact of foreign assistance on developing civil society among different issues, observers suggest that such funding targeted to violence against women has been much more effective than other similar funding projects (Richter 2002:79; Sundstrom 2002; Henderson 2003). Others, especially Julie Hemment (2004) and Kristin Ghodsee (2004), have been quite critical, arguing that, in a context of “liberal triumphalism,” Western funds to support the creation of crisis centers against domestic violence helped to privatize – that is, remove from state responsibility – social services just as the transformation of the economy left most Russians in poverty.

These concerns echoed others about the deradicalization of the global women’s movement into professionalized NGOs in response to the new funding environment (Alvarez 1999; Wedel 2001). Al-Ali’s (2003) analysis of women’s mobilization in the Middle East finds both positives and negatives in the availability of foreign funding. She argues that

The impact of international agendas on women’s activism in Egypt has been multi-faceted, entailing both positive and negative consequences. The sense of competition over foreign funding is certainly one of the negative effects of the increased presence of international donor organizations, as it often leads to rivalry and corruption and heightens divisions among women activists. In some instances, projects and campaigns are short-lived because they were more a response to “available funding” than to pressing local issues and agendas. The professionalization of the previously voluntary welfare sector and political activism constitutes a more complex side effect. On the one hand, it has created a situation where careerism could override political goals, which in turn augments the danger of rivalry. On the other hand, the professionalization of activities related to health care, reproductive rights, legal issues and development, entails greater specialization and expertise, which has been reflected positively in the quality of various projects and publications of contemporary activists.

(Al-Ali 2003:225)

As Al-Ali suggests, the professionalization of women’s organizations outside the West is different. In the United States and Great Britain especially, activists tend to see professionalization as movement away from the feminist practice of empowerment of sisters toward service provision and the client–service provider relationship. In contrast, two Russian observers (Liapounova and Drachova 2004) use the term “professionalized” to represent those activists they see as more informed, more effective, and self-identified as feminist activists, in contrast to the less competent social workers at government centers in northwest Russia. These state social workers, with little training in feminist theories about domestic violence, redeploy victim blaming and other gendered beliefs about women’s responsibilities for preventing violence in families.

Finally, in some cases, intergovernmental agencies, especially the more powerful European Union, and individual states can take on the issue of violence against women in their traditional diplomacy or even to justify warfare (as the United States did in its war in Afghanistan). Scholars point most positively to the increasing influence of the European Union, especially on the longer-term members. In terms of domestic violence, Kantola (2006) points to the role the European Union has in legitimating new issues and actors, such as the transnational feminist networks European Women’s Lobby and the Women Against Violence Europe (2006:144). The former brought the issue of domestic violence to the European Union and then to Finland (2006:145, 149–50, 152) while the latter helped spread the issue to member states (Brunell and Johnson 2007). On the issue of sexual harassment, “[t]he increasingly important role of the European integration process helped spread these ideas, not only through EU measures but also through national advocacy networks” (Zippel 2006:28). The European Union discourse shaped Germany’s response (2006: ch. 4). In both cases, the issues were “soft policy,” i.e. not legal mandates with the possibility of infringement proceedings for noncompliance.

All these interventions – cloaked in the ideas of feminism but often not feminist – can be placed on an intervention continuum (see Figure 1), from the least interventionist, the establishment of global norms, to the most coercive, military intervention. One recent book, focusing on postcommunist Russia, explicitly compares the varying success of these different types of interventions (Johnson 2009). Although it includes the issue of trafficking in women – an issue not incorporated into this review – the findings are helpful here in teasing out the varying impact of these types of interventions. In brief, although global norms and transnational feminist networking were helpful in getting a women’s crisis center movement started, real reform was only possible with the addition of substantial funding. The movement expanded dramatically in the late 1990s and early 2000s in response to this assistance, and local governments began to respond, developing mechanisms for coordination between local police and women’s crisis centers and creating government crisis centers and a few shelters (see also Johnson 2007). Following grant funded public awareness campaigns, studies of public opinion and articles in the media show increasing attention and a stronger sense that domestic violence is a problem worthy of government involvement. On the other hand, the US threats of economic sanctions against Russia provoked a national legal reform on the issue of trafficking in women, but the reforms include very little to assist victims, to prevent future trafficking, or to undermine sex/gender hierarchies. Based on remilitarized visions of international law and order combined with resurgent nationalism, they may even reinforce the neotraditional gender ideology that casts men as protectors of women (without any critique of the use of violence by men against the women they are assigned to protect). In sum, this book suggests that the most effective interventions are moderate: not the least or most interventionist on the continuum.

Foreign Intervention and Violence Against WomenClick to view larger

Figure 1 Intervention continuum

Source: Johnson (2009: ch. 1)


This review shows that international politics, in the aftermath of the 1990s focus on women’s human rights, has come to be significant to the politics of violence against women in most places around the world. That in itself is a useful insight, as even a few years ago, those who took a cross-national view (e.g. Weldon 2002; Mazur 2002) found that global factors played only a small role. While national or subnational factors will continue to have influence, the more recent studies show that advocacy and reform are increasingly shaped by global feminist norms, transnational feminist networking, and the availability of foreign funding to support organizations working to oppose violence against women. Despite the distinctions made within political science between the fields of comparative politics and international relations, the reality is that, at least on the issue of violence against women, sovereignty has been abridged. As argued by Kantola (2006:20), our feminist political science frameworks must blur the “once rigid demarcation of the domestic and the international and [recognize] the significance of the processes of multilevel governance.” These studies suggest that the mechanism for this blurring suggested by Keck and Sikkink (1998) – the boomerang – is only one among many different ways in which the global and the local interact.

Intervention appears to have been most effective at shifting NGO discourse, only one stage in the policy making process. The literature suggests a continuing need to be skeptical of formal policy reforms regarding violence against women, especially in countries seeking international approval; funding for such initiatives as well as implementation and enforcement tend to be limited. The studies also add a feminist insight, the need not just for concerted response to the problems of violence against women, but for reforms that address the underlying gender system which justified the ignoring of violence against women in the first place. Many of these observers argue for valuing reforms that contain a critique of the sex–gender system over gender neutral or gender specific reforms only aimed at protecting women based on their “inherent” vulnerability. As studies tend to examine different types of interventions independently, the scholarship would benefit from more comparisons between different types of interventions.

Of course, in the end, the context and the differences among women are incredibly important, an element of these questions of violence against women politics not sufficiently explored here. As Weldon (2006a) points out, global feminism has become more responsive to local differences by promoting autonomous self-organizing amidst the larger movement. This kind of federal pressure perhaps can best accommodate the differently situated women. Research methods must similarly be responsive to the local context and the differences among women, not applying implicit top–down blueprints for reform. This literature review is not intended to lead to universal theorizing about violence against women politics, but to add to a framework for the kinds of questions that scholars might raise when looking at the specifics of different situations.

More thorough analysis would require judging the impact of the changes on gender as a social structure, as it intersects with other structures in society. Such an analysis would entail examining the impact of these changes on women differently situated, e.g. married and unmarried, women in same-sex and different-sex relationships, transgendered or transsexual women (and transgendered or transsexual men) in relationships with men or women, these different types of women (and men) of the dominant and less powerful ethnic groups or races, or rich or poor, etc. The comparative analysis of the intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality is something that feminist social scientists are only beginning to figure out how to do as social science has mostly ignored these interstices (Weldon 2006b). This kind of analysis is another good avenue for future research.

Because most of the studies tend to focus on only one type of violence, or mix together various forms of violence, this analysis does not disaggregate the different forms of violence against women considered here. It is possible that the politics of domestic violence are empirically different from the politics of rape and sexual harassment, a claim asserted by Elman (1996). Taken as a whole, this literature suggests that sexual violence may face higher hurdles for reform because it calls into question even more contentious norms about women’s sexual autonomy. Perhaps seeking some signs of feminist change, the scholarship has focused more on domestic violence than on other types of violence against women. It seems that there has been less of an impact of international factors on rape politics, but in all likelihood, there has been even more of an impact on other violence against women issues not considered here, especially female genital mutilation and trafficking in women.

To return to the broader question of gender and intervention, this essay suggests that international studies scholars have taken an empirical approach to the questions posed by postcolonial critiques. From the perspective of those who see intervention as problematic by definition, this approach may be distasteful. From a more pragmatic perspective, the studies of violence against women politics illustrate how postcolonial critiques can lead to nuanced analysis of the intersection between the global, national, and local. Considering that few, if any, places are removed from some kind of foreign intervention, this kind of analysis is likely to become an even more important direction for feminist international studies research.


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