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Gender and Development Journal Vol. 21, No. 3, 2013, "When and Why Do States Respond to Women’s Claims? Understanding Gender-egalitarian Policy Change in Asia".

13 Nov 2013

Gender and Development Journal Vol. 21, No. 3, 2013,
Nitya Rao, Professor of Gender and Development at the University of East Anglia, is UNRISD External Research Coordinator for the When and Why Do States Respond to Women's Claims? Understanding Gender-egalitarian Policy Change in Asia project. She contributed the following article to the Views, Events and Debates in the journal Gender & Development.

How does positive change in pursuit of women’s rights and gender justice at the state level come about? What works and what doesn’t? In this piece, we hear from Professor Nitya Rao about an exciting new research project that aims to discover the processes involved in effective policy change.

When and why do states respond to women’s claims-making? What are the factors and conditions under which non-state actors can effectively trigger and influence policy change? What mechanisms are necessary to ensure that issues get on policy agendas?

New research being carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) seeks to understand how policy change to strengthen women’s rights occurs.

Countries may be leaders in some areas of gender equality, but laggards in others (Franceschet 2010). In many countries, it has been easier to pass legislation establishing quotas for women-held seats in legislatures or local governments, than to challenge customary practices and laws governing marriage, divorce, property rights and inheritance (Tripp et al. 2009), pointing to the different factors and actors at play both in processes of claims-making and policy change. The research will therefore also consider the “blind spots” or issues on which there has been little advocacy, or where advocacy does not enter policy debates, despite the issues’ centrality to women’s lives and well-being.

Two areas around which women’s rights advocates have mobilised in recent decades serve as entry-points to deepen our understanding of the processes of claims-making: violence against women, and the rights of migrant women/domestic workers. Additionally, attention will be paid to issues where advocacy and claims-making have been either less visible (care work), or more difficult (family law and inheritance).

The research is being conducted in three of the largest and most diverse countries of the Asia region: China, India and Indonesia. Their size, different political systems, varying degrees of democratisation and decentralisation, and other forms of diversity (ethnic, religious, geographic, and so on) suggest that understanding what happens in these countries potentially has enormous significance for understanding gender equality policies — and obstacles to change — elsewhere.

Apart from exploring the complex processes through which advocates for women’s rights articulate their demands, the research examines other actors — grassroots organisations, elites, donors, First Ladies, political parties — nationally or transnationally, which may also catalyse policy change. It would be naive to limit the “politics of policy formulation” (Mazur 2002, 13) to women’s movements and agencies and assume that they are always the main, or most important, agents of change. In fact, existing research suggests that in many instances there have been other key actors involved, including Left parties, the political elite, social movements and transnational forces. The national and transnational diffusion of ideas, norms and policy instruments can happen through different channels, including intergovernmental organisations (in particular those of the UN) and donors (with their proclivity for “best practices”), as well as in more diffuse forms through professional networks and non-governmental organisations, to name a few.

The research methodology, based on cross-issue and cross-country comparisons, was developed and fine-tuned on 22-24 August 2013 at a multistakeholder workshop held in New Delhi, India. Advocates and experts from international organizations (UNICEF, UN Women), NGOs (DAWN, Oxfam–GB, SAHAJ) and academia (IDS, University of New Mexico) shared their experiences and insights on a range of related topics with the research teams, helping to shape and inform the research approach and questions. Four sub-questions guide the inquiry.
  • Under what structural configurations and in response to what kinds of actors/coalitions are states more likely to respond positively to demands for gender-egalitarian policy change?
  • How do structural configurations and actors/strategies differ across issue areas within the same country?
  • What role do transnational actors play in the process of policy change?
  • Once policies or laws have been formulated or inscribed in constitutions, what determines the extent to which they are implemented?

By contributing and deepening insights into the processes, factors and mechanisms that lie behind gender-egalitarian policy change, including the interface between the local, national and global, this research has the potential to inform policy debates at different levels. It should also help civil society groups, advocates of women’s rights and other actors better strategise and articulate their demands for progressive policy change within the state realm — and beyond it, for example, in the framing of the post-2015 development agenda.

The project is funded by the Ford Foundation Regional Offices in New Delhi, Beijing and Jakarta.


Franceschet, Susan (2010) ‘Explaining domestic violence policy outcomes in Chile and Argentina’ Latin American Politics and Society 52 (3): 1–29events, and debates
Mazur, Amy G. (2002) Theorizing Feminist Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tripp, Aili Mari, Isabel Casimiro, Joy Kwesiga and Alice Mungwa (2009) African Women’s Movements: Changing Political Landscapes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press