1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development, Social Policy and Development

Gender and Social Policy

  • Project from: 2002 to 2004


The past decade has witnessed a renewed interest in social policies, and some governments have increased social spending to soften the impacts of economic reform. These changes have come in the wake of widespread realization of the failure of the neoliberal economic model to generate economic growth and dynamism, and to eradicate poverty. At the same time, processes of political liberalization have opened spaces for social movements in many parts of the world to articulate demands for more effective social policies that mitigate the effects of market failures and reduce inequalities.

These contestations have coincided with a rediscovery of “the social” in the policy oriented literature, widely understood to embrace the cluster of social and political institutions, norms, and relationships that define the boundaries of market exchange, reduce transaction costs and enhance social and political stability. However despite the movement away from the standard neoliberal approach of the 1980s, and the increasing recognition given to institutions and the state, there is little agreement on a number of critical issues. These include the scope of social policy (universalism versus residualism and targeting); the appropriate interface between social and economic policy; the role of the state (not just as regulator but also as a provider of social welfare); and the values underpinning public policy, in particular core values of equality (and redistribution) which seem to have been displaced by the emphasis on poverty.

A gender perspective on social policies in the South, as in the North until quite recently, has remained on the margins of these debates. This project attempts to move the gender analytical framework closer to the centre of social policy thinking. From their different regional perspectives, the research papers prepared for the project map out the complex ways in which social policies are filtered through social institutions—families and communities; markets; care arrangements; health and education systems; the public sector—that are “bearers of gender”. Attention to gender also reveals the extent to which inequalities (of class, gender and region) are being intensified as a consequence of shifts in the global economy, and processes of privatization and commercialization taking place within countries. Women’s unpaid care work continues to form the bedrock on which social protection is subsidised, with erosions in state provisioning impacting most strongly on women. Despite women’s increasing participation in paid work, labour markets continue to reproduce gender-based segmentations and inequalities in wages/income, work-related social benefits, and social security.

Some of the papers prepared for this project have been published as United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) Programme Papers (see right link to Publications); others papers are also available (see right link to Unpublished papers).

The full set of papers prepared for this project has been published in an edited volume (Shahra Razavi and Shireen Hassim, Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context: Uncovering the Gendered Structure of “the Social”, Basingstoke: Palgrave/UNRISD, 2006).

A new project on Social and Political Economy of Care is underway at UNRISD. The project document was made available on this website in March 2007.