STEM Shoutout: Dr. Mala Htun

Political Science professor publishes series of papers on women rights

Dr. Mala Htun, a professor at UNM Political Science Department, is a political scientist focused on comparative politics, women’s rights, and the politics of race and ethnicity. Dr. Htun is part of the Advance family and serves as a co-Pi and Deputy Director for the program.

In the past year, Htun has published several papers on women’s rights and gender equality. Most recently, she and Francesca Jensenius wrote a short piece for the Washington Post on the rise in reports of domestic violence during the covid-19 pandemic. In contrast to many media stories, which claim that violence is increasing, they say that it is too early to tell. Covid-19 triggers individual risk factors for violence like job loss, trauma, and alcohol abuse. But until we have good survey data, we won’t know about actual rates of violence during the pandemic.

Often, trends in reports of violence run in the opposite direction to the prevalence of violence. When violence is truly entrenched in a culture, no one talks about it. Women are shamed, punished, and ostracized for speaking out. Women grow more likely to report when there are incentives and opportunities to do so. Feminist groups around the world have worked for decades to get governments to create services for women victims, which has increased the likelihood of reporting.

Htun and Jensenius argue that violence against women grows from a broader cultural context of gender inequality, not just temporary circumstances like the covid-19 pandemic. The good news is that many governments around the world are taking action to combat violence, public attitudes are changing, and more women feel empowered to speak out about their experiences.

“We will not know for a while whether or not the covid-19 pandemic has increased violence against women. What’s most important is the general rise in reporting and governments’ greater willingness to support women in crisis,” Htun and Jensenius say.

In winter 2020, Htun and Jensenius also published a paper on  approaches toward domestic violence and sexual harassment in a special issue of Daedalus on Women and Equality. Their article, “Fighting Violence Against Women: Laws, Norms, and Challenges Ahead,” analyzes government policies and their impacts in countries around the world.

Governments, international organizations, and civil society groups around the world have made it easier and safer for victims to report, and have encouraged bystanders to intervene. However, Htun’s paper also points out the risks of producing unintended consequences and that some campaigns or training backfire.

The article also mentions the recent #MeToo movement and how this has affected women in the workplace. Though the movement reduced the stigma associated with assault and harassment, some studies show that some men avoid working with or mentoring women colleagues, afraid that casual comments or jokes might be interpreted as harassment. Men’s fear–which is often not justified–subsequently may end up excluding women from professional networks.

Htun’s paper points out that women need a firm structural foundation to battle domestic violence and harassment, including resources, jobs and social support. Changing policies and reforming laws to empower women will enable them to bargain for more equitlabe relationships and help to end gender and sexual violence.

In March of 2020, Htun and Jensenius published an article in the European Journal of Development Research called “Political Change, Women’s Rights, and Public Opinion on Gender Equality in Myanmar.” The article inquires into the prospects for gender-equal social change in Myanmar (also called Burma), where a closed and repressive government historically prohibited much social science research.

Using data from two nationwide public opinion surveys, Htun and Jensenius look at people’s attitudes toward gender equality and women’s rights. They find that people’s beliefs tend to be  conservative and traditional relative to other Asian countries, and that views on gender are closely linked to views toward the political system, individual freedoms, and pluralism. If Myanmar is to make progress on women’s rights, the country needs to protect people’s freedom to organize to pressure for change in social norms and government policy.