Sustaining Power: Women’s Struggles against Contemporary Backlash in South Asia

In recent times, there has been a rise in attacks on women’s rights in South Asia, a backlash triggered by the perceived or actual gains made by women. However, women are fighting back, as they have through numerous movements in the past century to advance their rights. Sustaining Power: Women’s Struggles against contemporary backlash in South Asia (SuPWR) is a five-year ESRC-funded research project where we investigate when, how, and why South Asian women’s power struggles have withstood backlash and succeeded in holding onto their gains. We believe that insights can yield lessons about the works that defend women’s rights across the world. 

Researchers: Maheen Sultan; Pragyna Mahpara; Iffat Jahan Antara; Nuha Annoor Pabony

Partners: Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, CARE Nepal, Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Institute of Social Studies Trust

Timeline: 2020–2024

Status: Ongoing

Method: Qualitative

Contact: Maheen Sultan;

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Considering women’s social, political, and economic position a few centuries ago, women have achieved tremendous progress in transforming their role from “child-bearing machines” to human beings with rights and responsibilities. But despite progress, significant inequities persist. Much of it comes in the form of backlash against women’s empowerment. This backlash has been particularly prominent in South Asia, where a half-century of rapid economic, socio-cultural, and political change has transformed gender relations and women’s lives, but has also generated widespread contestation over gender relations and social values. Civic laws, rules, and regulations are being built and demolished to shrink women’s space and limit their collective organisation. Yet, against all odds, women are fighting back. The rise of the “Me Too” movement along with women’s struggles over labour rights are examples of women coming together to resist the backlash. The research aims to inform gender justice activists in effectively mobilising against the backlash, as well as help development workers and policymakers in strengthening gender-transformative practice and policy.

This study is relevant to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), particularly to achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls

Research Questions

To understand women’s power struggles in retaining power and sustaining their gains against backlash we asked the following questions:

  • What new forms of backlash are being created through the interaction of contemporary macro-level economic, social, and political factors?
  • What mechanisms and strategies have been used by women’s struggles to successfully retain power in the face of backlash? How are these shaped by differences across groups, institutional spaces, and overtime?
  • What are women’s own understandings of power and struggle? How do these vary over time, and according to women’s diverse intersectional identities?
  • How have women’s power struggles in one institutional space triggered or galvanised power struggles in other spaces? How and to what extent do these interactions lead to mutually reinforcing cycles that enable women to embed gains?


This is a comparative research project across four South Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. We selected four cases of women’s struggles in each of the four countries, for a total of 16 cases. We are following a longitudinal approach (including two rounds of data collection, ongoing reflection, archival research, and oral histories) to study each of the 16 cases across the duration of the project. Our proposed methodology draws attention to a) the process of women’s power struggles and their vulnerability to backlash at different moments during that process; b) women’s detailed understanding of their agency and how this is strengthened or weakened by the local conditions of their struggles; and c) how individual struggles interact across spaces and groups, aggregating to larger community market and systemic change processes.

Findings and Recommendations

Study ongoing.