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When Do Governments Promote Women's Rights? A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Sex Equality Policy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2010

Mala Htun
New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. E-mail:
S. Laurel Weldon
Purdue University. E-mail:


This essay proposes a framework to analyze cross-national variation in women's legal rights. To explore the distinct logics of policy change, we disaggregate sex equality policies on two dimensions: 1) whether they improve the status of women as a group or alleviate gender-based class inequalities, and 2) whether or not they challenge the doctrine of organized religion and the codified tradition of major cultural groups. We show that policies promoting gender equality seek fundamental social change and therefore challenge historical patterns of state-society interaction concerning relations between the state and the market; the respective authority of the state, religion, and cultural groups; and the contours of citizenship. Different issues, however, challenge different aspects of these relations. What's more, the priorities, strategies, and effectiveness of advocates and opponents of change (including women's movements, left parties, international NGOs, and organized religion) are shaped by state capacity, policy legacies, international vulnerability, and the degree of democracy.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2010

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