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Influencing Policy for Gender Justice: The Role of International Non-Governmental Organizations

28 Oct 2014

Influencing Policy for Gender Justice: The Role of International Non-Governmental Organizations
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD research project “When and Why do States Respond to Women’s Claims? Understanding Gender-Egalitarian Policy Change”. In this project, we seek to understand how policy change to strengthen women’s rights occurs by analysing the conditions under which non-state actors can effectively trigger and influence processes of change. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Ines Smyth is the Senior Gender Advisor at Oxfam Great Britain and at the time of writing also project advisor for the UNRISD research project “When and Why do States Respond to Women’s Claims? Understanding Gender-Egalitarian Policy Change in Asia”.

Setting the Scene

This think piece contributes to research which aims to improve our understanding of which actors and factors militate in favour of states adopting and implementing policies that promote women’s rights, and how actors formulate their claims for such policy change. To make this a manageable and focused initiative, the project includes in its geographical span three large countries: India, China and Indonesia. The purpose is not simply to enquire into an abstract research question, but to identify lessons about what may indeed make states more responsive to women and their claims.

This short piece is intended to support this effort, given how little is known about the various processes of claims making that women, their organizations and other actors undertake, and what the links are, if any, between such efforts and policy change.

In order to make these reflections manageable and focused, I consider the case of policy change related to violence against women (VAW), which is also referred to as gender-based violence (GBV).1 Policy implementation, while obviously critical in terms of outcomes, is beyond the scope of the present essay. For the purposes of this piece, I rely mostly on Oxfam’s experience of work on VAW/GBV, and from that I try to reach some conclusions on what role, if any, international NGOs may play in supporting women’s claims making and in facilitating policy change.

Establishing a couple of basic notions that for the basis of the further reflections in this piece helps to set the scene.

One is that eliminating violence against women and girls is primarily the responsibility of the state. As stated by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Resolution 1994/45: “Governments have a duty to […] exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women and to take appropriate and effective action concerning acts of violence against women [...] and to provide access to just and effective remedies and specialized, including medical, assistance to victims”.

The other is that feminist activism is the most effective force that induces governments to fulfil these responsibilities. In this I am supported by the evidence provided by Htun and Weldon’s research. They find that a “strong, autonomous feminist movement is both substantively and statistically significant as a predictor of government action to redress violence against women” (Htun and Weldon 2012:560), and that “countries with the strongest feminist movements tend, other things being equal, to have more comprehensive policies on violence against women than those with weaker or non-existent movements” (Weldon and Htun 2013:236).

Other research maintains that democratization and high GDP per capita are important factors in increasing the probability of a government passing domestic violence legislation, while religious components of culture are unlikely to have any effect on policy change (Giridhar 2012). However, I don’t believe the two explanations to be contradictory or mutually exclusive (part of the “other things being equal” above). Weldon and Htun’s research also includes other elements for success: international norms and other factors further strengthen feminist efforts. In this piece I enquire into what some of the “other factors” are by:
  • considering the relationship between policies at global, regional and national levels; and
  • looking at how efforts to promote change in the attitudes and beliefs of people at large, including policy makers, can complement work focusing on policy change.

Specifically, I am keen to link these two issues to the role of INGOs in supporting policy change in the area of VAW/GBV.

The Current Situation

A supportive, progressive and policy environment is crucial to promote women’s rights. In VAW/GBV we have seen considerable progress at the supra-national level as well as within countries. Some of the most relevant international instruments include: the 1993 UN General Assembly landmark Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women; the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action on Women, Development and Peace, which condemns VAW and outlines specific steps governments can take to end it; and two general recommendations (no. 12 and no. 19) issued by the CEDAW Committee which specifically address VAW. These frameworks have been adopted and ratified by almost all governments and members of the international community. Recent UN Resolutions —such as 1325, 1820, 1794, 1888 and 1889—all cover issues of relevance.

Regional instruments include :

  • Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)
  • Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women
  • ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of VAW
  • Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (2010)

There are also initiatives that support relevant policies by raising awareness, reminding governments of their commitments and accountability, and providing resources. The most recent large event has been the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) in 2013, which was concerned with the elimination of violence against women in all its forms. The Agreed Conclusions contain about 60 policy recommendations for government action. There are additional and diverse initiatives lead by organizations such as Amnesty International, Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the UK government and many others.

At national level there has been equally noticeable progress: 125 countries have domestic violence laws in place. By April 2011, 52 countries had explicitly made marital rape a criminal offence. Two thirds of all countries have passed laws to prohibit sexual harassment.

However, while almost all countries criminalize rape, penal codes often define sexual violence very narrowly, and laws that exempt perpetrators if they marry their victims exist in many others (UN Women 2012). Most importantly, many governments continue to do very little, and implementation remains a problem among all of them. This applies to countries that have ratified international or regional conventions as formal ratification does not necessarily lead to policy changes or implementation at the national level (Avdeya 2007). However, progress is possible and sources mentioned here conclude that social pressure is a powerful force that can potentially generate state compliance.

What is the role of international NGOs? The experience of OXFAM

OXFAM is an international NGO working in development, humanitarian crises and policy influencing. Currently there are 17 OXFAM organizations working in a close confederation. The reflections in this piece concern mostly Oxfam Great Britain (OGB). They offer the opportunity to gain insights on the role of INGOs and how they make progress in influencing governments.

The organization has the ambition to “make a major and transformational increase in supporting national change, and strengthen the ability of poor people, donors, supporters and the greater public to raise their voice against the injustice of poverty in a digital world” (OXFAM 2013:23). In practice Oxfam’s approach to policy influencing is complex and diverse.

Global Influencing

At the global level Oxfam has three large campaigns. None is specifically on women’s rights, but ‘feminist insiders’ try to ensure that they do include women’s rights considerations, as appropriate and possible. An example of this in terms of VAW is the Arms Trade Treaty Campaign, which in 2013 resulted in governments adopting the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN. The treaty, which prohibits the sale of arms that could be used to commit serious violations of human rights, is the first ever to recognize the link between gender-based violence and the arms trade. Women’s networks, such Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS), were very active in the Campaign and internal advocates within Oxfam supported their efforts to include VAW in the Arms Trade Treaty.

INGOs have resources in terms of finances, skills, technology, personnel, reach with policy makers and the public, and recognition. All of those factors make their support very valuable to women’s organizations at national level. However, support and collaboration do not always come easy and often relationships are mediated through gender advocates within INGOs. Genuine trust and collaboration between the latter and representatives of women’s organizations are essential.

National and Regional Influencing

At national level Oxfam works on influencing policy specifically on gender and VAW/GBV in different countries and regions. An interesting example is Raising Her Voice (RHV), a women’s political participation and leadership programme, which included 19 projects across four continents. Its theory of change identifies three broad spheres—personal; political (including public and customary laws, policies, structures and decision-making processes); and social (attitudes, beliefs )—where change is necessary and possible. The adoption of this theory of change is a reflection of Oxfam’s emphasis on the need to change the attitudes and beliefs of men and women at large, as an essential complement to changing policies and legislation. As a large INGO, Oxfam has been able to test this position in several of its RHV projects and to disseminate the results of its experiences and reflections to the benefit of, amongst others, national women’s organizations.

Several of the RHV projects focus on VAW/GBV. This includes in Nigeria, were Oxfam works with the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), a national women’s rights organization advocating for the terms of CEDAW to be included in country level legislation (known as domestication of the Convention) and, more recently, the African Union Women’s Protocol (AUP). WRAPA led the efforts of an alliance of over 17 civil society organizations, faith and community-based organizations that significantly contributed to the passing the ‘Violence against Persons Prohibition’ (VAPP) Bill.

In this context Oxfam’s contribution was to provide financial support; help adopt a theory of change with strategies that try to modify both attitudes and beliefs as a complementary way of articulating claims (as mentioned earlier); and offer opportunities and platforms which allowed women’s organizations to network better and strengthen their formal and informal connections. In addition, Oxfam’s support to WRAPA in Nigeria was part of a larger initiative to influence the ratification and domestication of the African Union Women’s Protocol (AUP) across Africa, thus linking country and continental levels of analysis and influence.

Finally, Oxfam’s work exemplifies another important role INGOs can have: that of bringing national concerns into the international policy-making arena. In 2014, Oxfam participated in the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) on “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls”. Here its engagement was on the promotion of a Comprehensive International Action Plan (CIAP) to end VAW in alliance with Due Diligence Project, Equality Now and IPPF, The proposed CIAP itself and the use of CSW as a platform help bring the efforts and concerns of myriads of national and local organizations to the attention of the international aid community.

To summarize, here are some lessons from my reading of Oxfam’s experiences of the role INGOs can play in supporting claims making on women’s rights:
  • INGOs have an important function and the capacity to collaborate with women’s organizations in influencing governments and other relevant agencies at different levels (national, regional and global), and create the links that amplify and thus make women’s claims more far-reaching and effective.
  • INGOs can offer funding, technical advice, networking opportunities and platforms to national women’s organizations. They can also support them in developing suitable analyses and theories of change (for example, for VAW, on the importance of working on changes in both policies and attitudes) that make national women’s organizations’ influencing work more attuned to contemporary approaches and insights, and thus hopefully more effective.
  • They can also integrate women’s rights considerations in their own wider campaigns and other policy efforts. In so doing they can give more voice and weight to women’s organizations, often through the relationship that INGO staff with gender expertise have with feminist movements.

1 Gender-based violence (GBV) is violence directed against a person because of their gender; while violence against women (VAW) refers to violence directed specifically to women.

Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2012. “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005.” American Political Science Review 106(03): 548-569.

Weldon, S. Laurel, and Mala Htun. 2013. “Feminist Mobilisation and Progressive Policy Change: Why Governments Take Action to Combat Violence against Women.” Gender & Development 21(2): 231-247.

Giridhar, N. 2012. The Global Spread of Domestic Violence Legislation: Causes and Effects. Thesis, New York University.

United Nations Women. 2011. Progress of the World's Women 2011-2012. In Pursuit of Justice. New York.

Avdeya, Olga. 2007. “When do States Comply with International Treaties? Policies on VAW in Post-Communist Countries.” International Studies Quarterly 51(4): 877-900.

OXFAM. 2013. The Power of People against Poverty - Oxfam Strategic Plan, 2013 – 2019. Oxford.

    Dr Ines Smyth is the Senior Gender Advisor at Oxfam Great Britain. In this capacity she advises the organization on policies, strategies and approaches to gender equality and women's rights work, and supports staff and partners in working on relevant issues in development, humanitarian crises and policy influencing. Before joining Oxfam she was an academic at various institutions: the Institute of Social Studies, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economic among those. She is an activist on women's rights in her personal and professional capacity. At time of writing, she is project advisor for the UNRISD research project “When and Why do States Respond to Women’s Claims? Understanding Gender-Egalitarian Policy Change in Asia”.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.