1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

When and Why Do States Respond to Women's Claims? Understanding Gender-Egalitarian Policy Change in Asia

  • Project from: 2013 to 2015

This UNRISD research seeks to understand how policy change to strengthen women’s rights occurs. 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 the policy agenda?

The Research Issue in Context

The past couple of decades have seen the rise of gender-equality policies on different issues and at different levels, from legislation on domestic violence at national and regional levels, to quotas and reserved seats for women in national parliaments and local councils. These outcomes are frequently seen as part of a broader democratization of gender relations.

Yet a number of issues and concerns remain. First, progressive social change, and change in gender relations and structures more specifically, are the result of complex processes, the causal influences being more diverse and less unidirectional than is sometimes assumed. Second, the positioning of different actors, as well as their degree of autonomy from or dependence on the state, can influence the kinds of issues that are included in or excluded from the policy domain. Third, progress on gender equality policy has been uneven across issue areas, even within the same country. Fourth, policy decisions may not be implemented, resulting in few meaningful improvements in women’s status and ability to realize their rights. Fifth, the translation of global gender equality norms has been uneven across countries; in other words, global trends are filtered through different domestic contexts to produce varying outcomes.

Research Objectives and Questions

The project aims to contribute insights into:
  • the complex processes through which advocates for women’s rights articulate their demands, and strategize with other actors both within and outside the state realm, and transnationally, to bring about policy change;
  • the "blind spots"— issues on which there has been little advocacy, or where advocacy does not enter policy debates, despite their centrality to women’s lives and well-being; and
  • the proactive role of other actors, nationally and transnationally, in triggering policy change.

China, India and Indonesia
To capture diversity in both governance systems and sociopolitical contexts across Asia, the research is being conducted in three of the largest and most diverse countries of the region: China, India and Indonesia. Their size, different political systems (central/federal), varying levels and degrees of democratization and decentralization/regional and local autonomy, and other forms of diversity (ethnic, religious, geographic, etc.) suggest that understanding what happens in these countries potentially has enormous significance for understanding gender equality policies and obstacles to change elsewhere.

Entry points
The research focuses on two broad issue areas: physical/bodily integrity (for example, violence against women), and economic and social rights (related, for example, to labour or property). The specific issues selected for in-depth comparative analysis across the three countries — violence against women and the rights of migrant women/domestic workers — are issues around which women’s rights advocates have mobilized in recent decades. These will serve as entry-points to deepen the understanding of processes of claims-making. Additionally, attention will be paid throughout the research to two sets of issues where advocacy and claims-making has been either less visible (care work), or more difficult (family law and inheritance).

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?

Methodology and Methods

The research will adopt a comparative approach, focusing on the complexity and particularity of claims-making around two specific issues in the three country contexts: violence against women (VAW) and the rights of migrant workers, especially domestic workers. These will serve as entry points to deepen the understanding of processes of claims-making. The research will also consider two further issues, though perhaps not at the same level of detail. The first is the issue of land/property rights, which, despite international pressure, has remained controversial on the ground. The second is claims-making around the issue of "care", which was an important motivation for this project.

In order to do justice to the complexities of change processes, the research will use "process-tracing" and "analytical narratives" to reconstruct the unfolding/evolution of a particular set of claims over time, and unpack the reasons why certain claims gain acceptance in policy and may even be implemented, while others remain stubbornly intractable.

The research will primarily use qualitative methods including, but not limited to, archival research (parliamentary debates, policy documents, judicial reports, speeches, media coverage) and interviews with key informants (policy makers, movement actors, bureaucrats, etc.). If required, brief surveys may be conducted with women (and men) to elicit their views, interests and perceived barriers to change. The use of multiple methods will ensure internal validity and robustness of findings.

Research Team

Country-level Research Teams
  • China: Du Jie, Xiaopeng Pang, Yongying Zhang, Yani Li, Dongling Ma, Di Peng, Guihua Han
  • India: Shraddha Chigateri, Mubashira Zaidi, Anweshaa Ghosh
  • Indonesia: Sri Wiyanti Eddyono, Farha Cicik, Dini Anitasari Sabaniah, Estu Rakhmi Fanani, Yurra Maurice, Yuni Warlif, Sisillia Velayati, Haiziah Gazali

Project Advisors
  • Jude Howell
  • Renu Khanna
  • Ines Smyth

Authors of Thematic Papers
  • Anne-Marie Goetz
  • Robert Jenkins
  • Naila Kabeer
  • Govind Kelkar
  • Jacqui True

Research Beneficiaries

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 strategize 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 research questions and research findings will be of interest to a wide range of distinct groups, including
  • researchers interested in equitable and inclusive policy change;
  • rights advocates, nationally and globally, within civil society and the non-governmental sector;
  • policy actors at the national, regional and global levels.

Outputs and Activities

  • Three in-depth country research reports (China, India and Indonesia ) tracing policy change around two selected issue areas: violence against women, the rights of migrant women workers (with a focus on domestic workers), and unpaid care work;
  • One overview project brief and country project briefs on the research in China, India and Indonesia;
  • Four thematic papers (links below);
  • One overview paper, comparing key findings across issues and countries;
  • Policy briefs on research findings, as appropriate;
  • A special issue of a journal, and journal articles;
    Paola Cagna and Nitya Rao, Feminist Mobilisation for Policy Change on Violence Against Women: Insights from Asia (Gender & Development, 24:2, July 2016, pp. 277-290)
  • Short think pieces, viewpoints and field notes.

Commissioned Thematic Papers


The project was funded by the Ford Foundation.