When Norms Collide: Local Responses to Activism against Female Genital Mutilation and Early Marriage by Karisa Cloward

| September 8, 2017
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When Norms Collide: Local Responses to Activism against Female Genital Mutilation and Early Marriage, Karisa Cloward (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 332 pp., $99 cloth, $34.95 paper.


How do we achieve meaningful change to advance human rights beyond commonly accepted policies? How can we push the needle toward improved attitudes and behaviors regarding violence against women and the wide range of issues that require diverse individuals and communities to implement international norms on the ground? Karisa Cloward’s When Norms Collide addresses these pressing questions by offering an impressive mixed-methods study that includes interviews, observations, a survey, and an experiment.

In this groundbreaking work on women’s human rights, Cloward examines the ways that communities react to transnational activism and international norm promotion on violence against women where these conflict with local norms. Specifically, she identifies attitudinal, behavioral, and rhetorical changes at the individual-level that are “shaped by the salience of the international and local norms,” and she locates mechanisms that influence these norm changes: the level and quality of activism, an individual’s susceptibility to changing beliefs, and barriers to defecting from a local norm (pp. 19–20).

Cloward’s research shows originality, and the findings are important for those seeking to improve human rights. Cloward’s work echoes the conclusion of Laura Salazar and her colleagues in their 2003 American Journal of Community Psychology article, “Moving Beyond the Individual,” which noted that policies seeking to ameliorate violence against women need to address the underlying social norms that perpetuate and condone such violence. Whereas the article explores the relationship between policies to address violence against women and social norms in four communities in the U.S. state of Georgia, Cloward examines attitudes and behaviors in response to international norms against female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage among Maasai and Samburu communities in rural Kenya. While various scholars have examined international and government action to redress violence against women, few studies attempt to examine whether or how government policies or international norms actually change the underlying attitudes that perpetuate violence against women.

Cloward’s work moves us in this direction, as she explores the micro-level processes through which individuals are persuaded to accept international norms and shed local ones regarding FGM and early marriage. When Norms Collide speaks to various disciplines, including public health, social psychology, and the international norms literature in political science. However, arguably its most important contribution is to the women and politics literature, as it moves beyond the question of how we achieve policy change to challenge violence against women and toward an understanding of the causal mechanisms behind changes in attitudes and behaviors regarding violence against women.

While seeking policy change is important, we still find variation in attitudes and behaviors even among communities that have adopted legislation and ratified conventions. Cloward traces in great detail why this variation exists, how individuals negotiate the competing demands of transnational activists and local communities, and why international norms compliance spreads through some locales and not others.

Even more promising, Cloward’s findings could be synthesized with scholarly research on social norms across disciplines to yield fresh insights into the relationship among government action, nongovernmental action, and social norms. For instance, the book speaks well to the social network literature beyond political science, especially a 2016 study by Holly Shakya and her colleagues that examines intimate partner violence at the household level in rural Honduras. Such synthesis is vitally necessary, since violence against women often occurs in the “private sphere” of the household, out of the reach of community sanction. Future work should seek to further demonstrate the generalizability of Cloward’s findings so that policymakers and activists can better diffuse international norms on human rights across communities and households in various local contexts. Such research can help to provide additional tactics for activists to challenge harmful social norms expressed at the household and community levels, including patriarchy, heterosexism, and racism.

In addition to its academic value, the book is commendable for confronting violence against women, an important international issue in its own right. Scholars have demonstrated that such violence poses an obstacle to development and is a serious public health burden. Perhaps more importantly, most governments of the world have recognized that violence against women constitutes a violation of human rights. Yet, despite the adoption of international conventions and government policies against gender-based violence, such violence is a worldwide phenomenon that affects all ages, classes, races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.

This leads us to ask: Do international norms—and the activists and policies that promote them—reduce the likelihood of violence against women? More broadly, can international norms change social norms, namely, the attitudes and behaviors of individuals in a community? In other words, can we find pathways to alter individual-level norms so that incidents of violence against women decrease over time? What is perhaps most exciting about Cloward’s research is that her study and findings can help scholars, activists, policymakers, and donors worldwide better understand how to get the “biggest bang for their buck” from efforts to promote human rights and other international norms. While scholars have critiqued the (obstacles to) implementation of international norms and public policies to ameliorate violence against women, Cloward finds that international norm penetration can affect such deeply entrenched social problems as violence against women, given certain conditions. Notably, she shows that local elites’ acceptance of an international norm as well as proximity to neighboring communities that have accepted it increase the likelihood of individual and community acceptance. Thus, focusing activism at the local level and targeting local elites (whom Cloward terms “influential norm leaders”) are important strategies for diffusing international norms (p. 230). While action at the national level is important for encouraging government responsiveness to international norms, activists and donors should ensure dissemination and translation of international norms to the local level.

Moreover, the application of Cloward’s findings not only has the potential to reduce violence against women, but it could also assist policymakers in a variety of other areas. For example, in a 2007 American Political Science Review article titled “A Public Transformed? Welfare Reform As Policy Feedback”—examining why 1990s welfare reform in the United States did not affect public opinion to the extent that many politicians had hoped—Joe Soss and Sanford Schram write that policies “can influence beliefs about what is possible, desirable, and normal.” Likewise, international norms and their related activism and policy efforts can influence communities and individuals about a wide range of beliefs and practices.

When Norms Collide provides a blueprint for achieving meaningful change, and all who are interested in advancing human rights should take note.


—Cheryl O’Brien

Cheryl O’Brien is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at San Diego State University. The manuscript for her book on violence against women in Mexico and Nigeria is based on original research for which she won the 2014 Best Dissertation in Women and Politics from the American Political Science Association.


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Category: Book Review, Issue 31.3

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