Blog How do we know if what we’re doing is really ‘gender transformative’?

Reflections by researchers: Miranda Morgan, Research Consultant, shares her starting list for key principles underpinning "gender transformative approaches".

Miranda Morgan 

So many questions and I was stumped:

“But is her organization’s approach really ‘transformative’?”

“Which of my project activities are ‘gender transformative’?”

“How will I know that I’m picking a Gender Transformative Approach when I make my strategy?”

“How do we know if what they have done is really ‘gender transformative’?”

I had been asked to deliver a short introduction on what constitutes Gender Transformative Approaches in the context of securing women’s land rights in a recent workshop. I was now viewed as the ‘expert’ on the topic, despite having far less real-world expertise than any of the participants representing communities from across Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. And I was finding the questions from participants challenging, if not impossible, to answer.

‘Gender Transformative Approaches’ (GTAs) are in vogue. These approaches often appear as a bundle or menu of activities and processes which attempt to address deep-rooted and structural barriers to gender equality. Approaches targeting restrictive social norms for women are especially highlighted.

International organisations and small NGOs alike agree that GTAs are exactly what is needed to address gender inequality. The rationale of turning to approaches that tackle the root causes of gender inequalities and not only the symptoms is without fault. And the limitations of most gender-responsive and gender ‘gap-filling’ approaches (which often still manifest as “women-in-development") are apparent.

But what the alternatives look like is less clear. What exactly are ‘Gender Transformative Approaches’? How can we identify if something that a group or community or project is doing is ‘transformative’ (or could be over time)? Who should decide if an approach or outcome is ‘transformative’ or not?

Certainly not me!

I have always been very uncomfortable with the term ‘GTA’. Not just because it is a mouthful or because “GTA” has become yet another inaccessible acronym in the devspeak dictionary, which completely strips out the whole ‘transformative’ bit.

For me, it would be more accurate to say that something is a ‘promising’ approach to reducing gender inequalities and then only refer to it as a ‘transformative approach’ once it has been adopted, adapted and change (of a certain depth, breadth and durability) has actually been experienced – and ideally observed.

But even in that circumstance, you could then only tentatively label it prospectively as a ‘gender transformative approach’ in a certain setting and under certain conditions.

Unfortunately, much of the menu of practices we refer to as ‘gender transformative’ is still largely untested at scale, and those that have tested these often only feature ‘emerging’ findings. It is unclear whether ‘emerging’ changes spread or stick. And exactly how wide, deep or enduring those changes have to be in order to be considered ‘transformative’. Who decides that? At what point in time?

When participants asked for approaches that are ‘gender transformative’, I could only think of what I would not consider to be transformative, such as initiatives:

  • That are implemented for women, without being directed by the women whose lives are presumably to be transformed
  • Which work only to build individual women’s empowerment and do not focus on building power and agency that are shared by women, for women, in all their diversity
  • That fail to consider women in all their diversity and leave some women out, especially those that are hardest to reach
  • That make women choose between activities that ‘empower’ them and time for leisure, personal care and rest
  • That do not take steps to safeguard and protect the women they purport to work for
  • Which focus all efforts on only one-quadrant of the gender@work framework without making efforts to implement, link or partner with efforts to cover the whole.

Flipping this, it would mean that to be labelled ‘gender transformative’ an initiative would have to adhere to collectively-agreed non-negotiable principles. Drawing from existing strands in the literature as well as the long history of feminist movements and change, here is:

A starting list for principles that must underpin all approaches claiming to be ‘gender transformative’

  • They must be derived from or have been developed with grassroots women (in all their diversity) and their representative organizations
  • They aim to strengthen the power of all women (in all their diversity) and encourage women to continue to build each other up (intentionally combining ‘power within’, ‘power to’ and ‘power with’ approaches)
  • They promote power sharing and collective voice and leadership (‘power with’)
  • They are strengths-based, recognizing existing skills and capacities, building on what has worked in previous approaches and working to target remaining root causes and structural barriers
  • They take steps to safeguard and take care of women involved, including alleviating undue work burdens and supporting their safety
  • They are holistic and systemic, given that no one approach off the ‘menu’ is a silver bullet.
  • They should support complementary actions among partners and allies that cross scales and address formal and informal systems.

It is not an exhaustive list (so please add!). And I cannot guarantee that doing some or all of these things will be enough on their own to lead to wide, deep and enduring – that is, transformative – change. But without them, I don’t believe it should be considered transformative.

I left the workshop with more questions than answers and, like most researchers, will conclude that what we need is more research. While that is true, I also want to continue listening and being challenged as I was in the workshop.

The workshop also provided a good dose of inspiration. Among other things, a participatory exercise enabled participants to share their visions of transformative change for securing women’s land rights. Their combined vision is lofty but sets a direction.

So, while the path itself is hazy – as are the actions along the path – for me the destination, that ‘transformed’ future, is thankfully a little bit clearer.


These are the personal reflections of Miranda Morgan, following her participation in the Women’s Land Rights Learning Exchange (an international workshop hosted by the International Land Coalition in Arusha, Tanzania on October 3-5, 2022).

Reflections are also available from participants from Africa and Asia.

Miranda is a researcher with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and participated at the workshop on behalf of the global initiative on 'Securing women’s resource rights through gender transformative approaches’.