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

November 13, 2012  


S. Laurel Weldon

S. Laurel Weldon
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - 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.

"Regardless of the wealth of a nation or how many women serve in government, advances in women's rights result from demands of women and girls themselves, like this schoolgirl, fighting for those rights," says S. Laurel Weldon, a professor of political science who has studied the history of women's rights and violence against women over four decades in 70 countries. "The international community can be a powerful support to these efforts, but the real catalyst for change is the demands of women and girls themselves."

"This girl's power came from her saying, 'I want to be educated, I want to learn and I want other girls to do so, too,'" Weldon says. "The world shouldn't expect change from politics as usual. Change happens when women mobilize to articulate what they want."

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.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: S. Laurel Weldon, 765-494-4185, weldons@purdue.edu

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