Towards Socialist Feminist Theory of Change


This blog explores the meaning of socialist feminist theories of change, and illustrates its application to promote safe migration of women.  It also analyses factors to be kept in mind while developing socialist feminist theories of change.

The author is grateful for the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women for inviting me to facilitate a workshop on the same this year and the participants in the same. They however bear no responsibility for shortcomings.   


Theory of Change (TOC) is a “reflexive process to explore change and how it happens in a particular context and with a particular group of people” (Hay, 2012, slide 5).

There appears to be two ways of developing a TOC in the field of international development namely:


  • Beginning with vision: The organization develops their vision of what “success” looks like and maps the social changes they think necessary to move towards the vision.  Particular attention is paid to identifying who will help them achieve their vision and how and who will hinder progress and strategies to counter the same ( Keystone, 2009, Goyal et al, 2010).
  • Beginning with problem or context:  Drawing upon Paulo Freire, this approach to TOC advocates that organisations need to encourage the oppressed to articulate their beliefs on causes of their oppression, develop a vision of where they want to go and strategise on how to reach there (Sudarshan, 2014, Hay, 2012, Girls not Brides, n.d).  This can be adapted to organisations which want to develop a theory of change for their programmes

While much has been written on theories of change[1], there is little on socialist feminist theory of change. This paper seeks to bridge this gap.

What is a socialist feminist TOC?

Socialist feminists believe that visions and strategies have to be rooted in a contextual analysis unpacking how (global) capitalism and patriarchy interlock with each other and other hierarchies to keep marginalised women in a subordinate position (Ehrenreich, n.d, also see Box 1)  The desired change, pathways of change and assumptions have to be spelt out, and they need to challenge global capitalism, patriarchy, racism, casteism and other institutional structures of oppression (Ehrenreich, n.d)  Like the  second approach to developing a TOC,  a socialist feminist perspective to TOC would begin with a context analysis and then move to desired change, and ways of getting there. 


Box 1: What is socialist feminism?

Anyone who recognizes that women occupy a subordinate position in society, and who takes transformative action against this subordination is a feminist (Bhasin and Khan, 1986).  Socialist feminists strongly believe that underpinning women’s subordination are power relations between women and men, as well as amongst women and amongst men based on other identities like race, caste, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity etc (Whitehead, 1979).  These power relations are played out in different institutions of society namely family, community, markets, state and inter-state bodies leading to unequal allocation of resources and access to decision-making; and restrictive social  norms (Kabeer, 1994, Murthy and Rao, 1997).  They believe that global capitalism and patriarchy and other systems of  oppression shape these institutions and relations, and have to be combatted through alliances between workers movements, women’s movements and women’s trade union.   Socialist feminist perspective to women’s subordination and emancipation is akin to gender-redistributive theories (Murthy, R.K, 2014 a)





Processes involved in evolving socialist feminist TOC

Elaborating further, a socialist feminist TOC entails five processes outlined in Figure 1. Yet, evolving socialist feminist theory of change does not entail a straight forward adoption of “steps” listed above. The facilitator needs to be rooted in socialist feminist perspective as well as strategic thinking (adapted from Brouwers and van Vugt, 2013).     Often there are different points of view amongst socialist feminists on the contextual analysis, desired change, process of change, and actions that are required. Being aware of strengths and limitations of one’s perspective and the location from which one comes is important for the facilitator and participant. Thus a socialist feminist TOC  is a political process that reflects outcomes of differences amongst socialist feminists based on their identity and at which level they come from (local to global)  (adapted from Stein and Valters, 2012). At the end of a process to formulate socialist feminist TOC, a consensus may be reached or there could be multiple socialist feminist theories of change on the same issue[2] (adapted from Brouwers and van Vugt, 2013).  Evolving a socialist feminist TOC may take anywhere between two days to one week, depending on how democratically it is done. 

Further, socialist feminist TOC is not a one-time “product”.  It needs to be revisited periodically, based on emerging contextual realities and lessons from implementation. It needs to be evolved and modified with the involvement of marginalized women[3] themselves and secondary stakeholders who hold a similar vision of change (James, 2011).  While one may or may not hold dialogues with men while evolving socialist feminist TOC, they would definitely be one of actors to engage with and change attitudes.

Why socialist feminist TOC?

An ordinary TOC may or may not reflect a socialist feminist perspective unless the facilitator and majority of participants hold such a perspective.  Further, unless the social relations and institutional approach to context analysis, identifying change process and actions are adopted the desired changes may not be achieved in women’s lives.

At a more practical level, socialist feminist TOC like any other theory of change, can be used for planning, monitoring, evaluation, learning or simply describing one’s beliefs on how progressive changes in women’s lives occur. See Figure 2.  In particular, it is useful in addressing practical gender needs in complex settings as well as furthering strategic gender/social interests of marginalised women.

Socialist feminist TOC, when used for planning entails evolving qualitative and quantitative gender-specific/gender redistributive indicators related to desired change (impact), change process (outcome) and actions with actors (process/output).  Indicators may need to be spelt out year wise, other than impact indicators.   Gender-specific indicators measure how far marginalised women’s (or men’s) specific needs are being met like access to child care, while gender redistributive indicators measure transformation in gender relations like women’s ownership and control of land vis a vis men (Mercy and Kappen, 2007)  Using these indicators, monitoring and evaluation process may be initiated and systems evolved.  Monitoring would be to see if envisaged (or modified) actions are taking place as planned and its outputs, and evaluation to assess whether change process and desired change are on the way.  Monitoring and evaluation by marginalised women could be initiated using visual scorecards. 

An ‘evolving’ or ‘live’ socialist feminist TOC may also be a learning opportunity as analysis of actually change that occurred can point to reasons for success (is to do with TOC or other reasons) and its replicability in other contexts, as well as reasons for failure (is to do with the TOC or implementation failure) (Hay, 2012) .

Theory of Change on Safe Migration: An Illustration

In a one and a half hour workshop organised by Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women on socialist feminist Theory of Change on 24rd  September, 2014 (as part of its 20th International Members Congress) safe migration of women was identified as the issue for which a socialist feminist TOC would be evolved.  The time was indeed short. The 25 participants who were present, from over 10 countries, were first asked to locate different identities of women which have a bearing on their unsafe migration. A card on each identity was placed on the “identity” chair (e.g. indigenous women).  Next the participants explored how the five institutions of family, community, markets (local to global), state and inter-state bodies (e.g World Trade Organisation) led to unsafe migration of women of the marginal identities identified earlier.   This set the institutional context. Chairs were placed in a circle, with one chair denoting each institution. Cards were used to record each institutional factor that lead to unsafe migration, for each of the five institutions. For example domestic violence against women was pinned against the chair denoting the institution of family.  Subsequent to this contextual analysis of unsafe migration from a socialist feminist lens, the participants collectively described the desired change using key words like “migrate freely”, “based on choice,  “safely” and “with rights” which were pieced together later by the facilitator with inputs from a Board member of GAATW. Ideally. this ‘piecing together’  should be done by the participants; time was a constraint here.  Once the desired change was clear, the change process was identified. Participants were asked to go back to the chairs placed in a circle on “family”, “community”,  “market”, “state” and inter-state”  institutions, read the context cards, and write the change they would like to see in the context in a card  For example, with regard to community institutions, one the change process identified was “as women in leadership positions of community institutions and unions” so as to counter the context of “male domination in institutions”. The next process was to identify actions to facilitate the change process identified at different institutional levels.  For example, one of the change processes at inter-state level was “bilateral and multilateral agreements on labour”. The action that was identified was “Evolve a model template of bi-lateral and multilateral agreements on recruitment and rights of women migrant labour in destination countries”.  Details of the socialist feminist TOC on safe migration that emerged with partners of GAATW are given in Table 1.  For examples of theories of change on anti-trafficking of women,  combatting early marriage and promoting women’s leadership see UN Women, 2013, Girls not Brides, n.d and  Goyal et al, 2010. 

Summing up

To conclude, socialist feminist theory of change needs to be rooted in analysis social relations and institutions that have a bearing on (marginalised) women’s subordination and emancipation. Like any theory of change- and perhaps more so- socialist feminist theory of change is a political process.  There can be different analysis of context, desired change, change process and actions. Socialist feminist theory of change is not static, and needs to re-examined periodically given changes in contexts, changes in circumstances and challenges faced.  Socialist feminist TOC can be used to present oneself to public and for planning, monitoring & evaluation. More importantly it can be used for learning from what worked and did not work with regard to the TOC and why.  In learning it is possible to take one step forward negotiating women’s interests in a society  wherein global capitalism, patriarchy and other hierarchical systems  dominate  




Bhasin, K  and Khan, N.S, 1986,. Some questions on feminism and its relevance in South Asia. Kali for Women, New Delhi



Danielle Stein and Craig Valters August 2012, Understanding Theory of Change in International Development, JSRP, Paper 1, International Development Department, LSE, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE


Ehrenreich, B, N.D,  What Is Socialist Feminism? (Reproduced From Win Magazine In 1976)   Last accessed October, 10, 2014

Girls not Brides, n.d, Theory of change on Child Marriage, Girls Not Brides, London UK,, Last accessed October, 10, 2014


Goyal, R, A., Pittman and A., Workman, 2010, Measuring Change : Monitoring and Evaluating Leadership Programs: A Guide for Organisations, Women’s Learning Partnership, Bathesda, Malryland, USA


Hay, K, 2012, Theory of Change: an Introduction for the “Engendering Policy through Evaluation Project”, September 21, Hyderabad

James, C, 2011, Theory of Change Review: A report commissioned by Comic Relief, Comic Relief,  London, UK.


Kabeer, N, 1994, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, Verso, UK


Keystone, 2009, Developing a theory of change: A guide to developing a theory of change as a framework for inclusive dialogue, learning and accountability for social impact, Keystone,  London UK


Murthy, R.K,  and N Rao, 1997, Addressing Poverty: Indian NGOs and Their Capacity Enhancement in the 1990s.  Friedrich Ebert Stiftung


Murthy R.K and M Kappen , 2007, Training Manual, Institutionalising gender in Development organizations and programmes, Visthar, Bangalore.


Murthy, R.K, 2014a, Are Gender-Sensitive Evaluations and Feminist Evaluations Different? Posted pn August, 21, 2014 At ,, Last accessed October, 10, 2014



Murthy, R.K, 2014b, 20 Years On: How do we get the changes we want to see? Feminist theories of change, Power point for workshop organised by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women on the same topic on 24th September, 2014 in Bangkok


Sudarshan, R.M, 2014, Theory of Change’ Approach for planning and evaluation, ISST, Mimeo


Brouwers and van Vugt, 2013,   ToC Notes 2  How to facilitate a ToC process  and help to develop ToC capacities? A reflection note coming from the Hivos ToC action-learning group2

file:///C:/Users/Welcome/Downloads/130308+FINAL++How+to+facilitate+... Last accessed October, 10, 2014


Whitehead, A. (1979) Some preliminary notes on the subordination of women. Institute of Development Studies Bulletin, No. 10: (3).  


UN Women, 2013,  Baseline Study of UN Women’s Anti-Trafficking  Programs,  UN Women,  India.

[1] See references attached

[2] UN Women has for example evolved a different TOC on anti-trafficking to one shared in this paper on the  related topic of safe-migration (see page 5). Less focus was placed in the UN Women’s TOC on immigration policies  of recipient countries leading to unsafe migration of women (UN Women, 2013).  

[3] Seen as primary stakeholders rather than beneficiaries (adapted from Stein and Valters, 2012)

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Comment by Rukmini Panda on January 2, 2015 at 8:46

Yes Ranjinidi,

As a part of Oxfam's work on gender justice, we are using it. In addition to that Oxfam has now introduced Transformative Leadership For Women's Right approach in which challenging the existing systems along with patriarchy is the key. Definitely I will let you know during course of our work on this framework.

Lots love and happy new year.

Comment by Ranjani K.Murthy on January 2, 2015 at 8:29

Thanks Rukmini. Do let me know if you use the framework, and modifications that you think are needed. Happy new year. Ranjani  

Comment by Rukmini Panda on January 1, 2015 at 12:53

Dear Ranjinidi,

Thanks a lot for this posting. I have learnt lot from your analysis in GAATW's congress. This refreshed my memory. Thanks once again

Comment by saba hussain on December 30, 2014 at 11:58

Hi Ranjani, send me your email id-i should be able to email some of the online stuff to you. Cheers. My email is

Comment by Ranjani K.Murthy on December 30, 2014 at 11:55

Dear Saba

Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with your/Nancy's observation that justice/redistribution framework is crucial.  There is little emphasis on these in policy these days, as well as institutional transformation towards justice.  I would be grateful if you could share the link to this article. I do remember having read some of her writings. Thanks again. Ranjani

Comment by saba hussain on December 30, 2014 at 11:35

Hi Ranjani, thanks for sharing this. This is very useful. It also reminds of the work of another Socialist Feminist Nancy Fraser who initially worked with two dimensional idea of Justice-redistrubtion (economic) and recognition (social/cultural). Later she has added a third dimension on (political) participation to make it a three dimensional concept of justice. I can see a lot of parallels between Fraser's framework and your ideas on socialist feminist TOC. 

Comment by Ranjani K.Murthy on December 30, 2014 at 8:43

Thanks Bhaswati. If you use the methodology please share ur experience. 

Comment by Bhaswati Chakravorty on December 30, 2014 at 7:35

Ranjani, great write up! Please keep sharing

Comment by Ranjani K.Murthy on December 30, 2014 at 7:29

The participants were  partners of GAATW working with migrant women, and a few migrant women themselves. They came from across the world!

Comment by Rituu B Nanda on December 29, 2014 at 16:58

Thanks Ranjani! This must have been a great reflection process. Who were the participants in this process ( in the migration example)? 

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