Gender transformative approaches

What are Gender transformative approaches?


Gender norms

In order to understand why approaches to end FGM must be gender transformative one needs to understand the basic concepts of gender and gender norms

“Gender norms refer to informal rules and shared social expectations that distinguish expected behaviours on the basis of gender. Gender norms are a subset of social norms and are often referred to as gender-based social norms. They dictate how men and women should behave.”
UNICEF 2021 (e-module)

Gender norms are based on deeply rooted roles and expectations that govern behaviours of different genders, defining what it means to be a woman, man, girl or boy in a particular culture. They are specific to a particular social context and exist in a particular moment of time.

“These norms sustain a hierarchy of power and privilege that typically favours those considered male or masculine over those who are female or feminine. Such hierarchies reinforce systemic inequalities that undermine the rights of women and girls and restrict opportunities for women, men and gender minorities to express their authentic selves.”
UNICEF 2021, E-module

While both men and women can be negatively affected by gender inequality they, as a group, also benefit from the situation, while women and girls as a group are generally worse off. 

Gender transformative approaches

Gender transformative approaches are based on the recognition that gender equality does not exist anywhere in the world.

According to UNICEF (2020), Gender transformative approaches (GTA) are thus “programs and interventions that create opportunities for individuals to actively challenge gender norms, promote positions of social and political influence for women in communities, and address power inequities between persons of different genders”.

In a recent report on Gender transformative approaches to ending FGM, the Orchid project defines GTA as an approach “that actively examines, questions and changes harmful gender norms and power structures that give boys and men advantages over girls and women. The ultimate aim of a GTA is to achieve gender equality.” (Orchid Project 2021)

These approaches are a type of “gender lens” that can be applied to any kind of programme, project or activity

For an approach to be gender transformative it is not enough to favour improvement of women and girls’ situations or to include men in the work to end GBV. Instead, such approaches aim to tackle the root causes of gender inequality and to truly redress power dynamics and structures that reinforce gender inequalities. (UNICEF, 2020 and Rutger, 2021)

Gender transformative approaches can be seen on a “Gender equity continuum”, from approaches that are gender discriminatory or gender blind to those that are gender sensitive or even gender-responsive, to the final stage of being truly gender transformative: 

    • Gender discriminatory approaches: Strenghten gender inequalities
    • Gender blind approaches:  Ignore norms, discrimination and inequalities
    • Gender-sensitive approaches: Acknowledge inequalities but with no further effect
    • Gender-responsive approaches: Acknowledge and considerate needs for men and women
    • Gender transformative approaches go further to treat the root causes of gender  inequalities, transforms gender role, norms and gender power relations. 

Orchid Project (2021) on the other hand distinguishes gender transformative approaches from those that are only “gender-accomodating” and focus on “women’s empowerment [and] aim to increase women’s ability to change their behaviours or access sources of power” while not “necessarily aim[ing] to change the underlying social order that gives rise to girls’ and women’s disadvantage”. (Orchid project, 2021, p.23)

In any case, experts agree that a gender-transformative approach must go further than empowerment of women and girls and really challenge the social order that lead to gender inequality. 

Gender-transformative approaches are relatively new in the anti-FGM sector, despite these approaches being used in other areas of development programming. 

Thus, the 2021 international stakeholder dialogue intended to support the development of practical and promising gender transformative approaches to ending Female Genital Mutilation, through mutual learning, identification of best practices and collectively set recommendations for key international stakeholders.  

The Orchid Project report

In October 2021, the Orchid Project, published a policy report titled “A gender-transformative approach to ending female genital cutting: Changing harmful gender and power imbalances”.  The report is based on desk research, an online survey as well as qualitative interviews with 19 respondents in 11 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. It frames FGM as a human rights violation, a type of gender-based violence and a manifestation of gender inequality “that assigns girls and women inferior positions in society. [FGM] reflects an ingrained inequality between the sexes and constitutes a form of discrimination against women.” Orchid Project explains how FGM is underpinned by patriarchal norms and is “fuelled by discriminatory gender norms that control girls’ and women’s sexualities, their bodies and, ultimately, their lives. It is motivated by patriarchal or traditional beliefs about proper sexual behaviour: a girl needs to be ‘pure’ before marriage (which means that a girl’s virginity until marriage needs to be secured) and her sexual desire or libido needs to be reduced to avoid promiscuity.” (Orchid Project, 2021)

“In my community, the reasons for the continued practice of FGC is to curb promiscuity, to beautify the women, initiate them into woman-hood and get them ready for marriage.” (p.22) 
A Nigerian respondent, Orchid Project, 2021 

Since GTA have not yet been widely applied to FGM the NGO evaluated the work done in other thematic areas in order to see how it could apply to FGM. The report concludes that a few key learnings could be applied to anti-FGM projects (Orchid Project, 2021, p. 6): 

    • Need to implement the approach at all levels of society
    • Need for an intersectional approach, “addressing the links between gender and other social markers of difference such as class, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, poverty and disability”
    • Boys and men must be involved
    • A long-term approach is needed


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