Transformative change for gender equality

What is transformative change for gender equality and how do we achieve it?

By Jenny Hedman, Policy Analyst, Lisa Williams, Gender Team Lead and Laura McDonald, Policy Analyst, Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD

Prioritising gender equality in development is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But to make sure the impacts of efforts are truly sustainable requires that imbalances in power relations between men and women are addressed, as well as the visible and invisible structures and norms that uphold these inequalities. This is what we call transformative change.

Transformative change may seem like an abstract concept. The new OECD guidance can help development partners ensure that their policies and programmes bring about lasting change when it comes to gender equality. Here are four mutually reinforcing ways in which all development organisations can tackle the root causes of gender inequalities and reshape unequal power relations.

Practise what we preach: organisational culture is key

Development organisations need to look at their own systems before looking outward. They must put into practice what they preach, taking a holistic approach to gender mainstreaming, including within their own institutions.

Think of the language your organisation uses, the norms and culture it upholds. This guidance sets out tools and checklists for organisations to get a sense of their own culture and social norms concerning gender equality. This information can then be used to draw a blueprint for making cultural shifts.

Recognise that all development activity has an impact on gender equality

All development co-operation programmes inevitably have an impact on gender equality. A helpful tool when thinking about transformative change is the gender equality continuum. It helps assess the kind of impacts the programme will have on gender equality, ranging from negative to transformative.

Of course, achieving transformative change is complex and highly context-specific; gender equality cannot be achieved by just one project or programme alone. That said, at a minimum, development partners should ensure that all their programmes are gender sensitive and not blind to gender inequalities. They should aim to meet the day-to-day practical needs of both women and men, making the outcomes more sustainable in the long run.  

Pay attention to the inequalities that intersect with gender

The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined by American civil rights advocate and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw as a means of looking at intersecting social identities such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, disability and economic status, and how they relate to oppression and disadvantage. Many statistics demonstrate the scale of gender inequality but hide the nuances and complexities within and between the groups of people who identify as women. To achieve transformative change for gender equality, development policies and practice need to promote the rights and inclusion of all individuals.  

Support grassroots organisations and feminist movements

Women’s rights organisations and movements in partner countries are critical actors for addressing the structural drivers of gender inequality, yet receive only about 1% of official development assistance (ODA). Because they are well rooted in their own communities, their expertise is contextual; they act based on lived experience and are best positioned to deliver transformative and lasting change. Working with grassroots organisations can also help to pre-emptively identify strategies to mitigate risks of cultural or religious backlash against development programmes that aim to promote the rights of women and girls.  

The OECD guidance on gender equality in development co-operation encourages critical reflection, questioning and challenging of gender norms. It challenges the distribution of resources and roles based on a person’s gender. It aims to foster an enabling policy, budgetary and institutional frameworks for developing partners that adequately protects girls’ and women’s rights, tackles the barriers they face and meets their particular needs. It requires collaboration at all levels – as individuals, as organisations, institutions and societies – to accelerate change and tackle the root causes of gender inequality.

Read the guidance to learn more on how to support local partners, explore country examples of gender-sensitive development programmes and find checklists on how to conduct a gender analysis and best practices for managing risks[1].

[1] Register and attend the virtual launch of the guidance here.