Are We There Yet? Reflections on Gender-Transformative Approaches in three CGIAR Initiatives

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Authors: Gracsious Maviza, Martina Jaskolski, and Giulia Caroli (CGIAR Focus Climate Security, The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT)

In line with SDG 5 to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, gender transformative approaches are a rising trend within the research and development field with an aim to generate more transformative change. The transformational gendered focus is generally recognised to have taken off during the 1995 Women’s Conference in Beijing, where gender transformation played a key role in the agenda. Since then, gender transformative research (GTR) has been defined by the International Development Research Centre as “research that aims to promote gender equality and to empower women and girls—not just for individual self-improvement, but to transform gender power dynamics and structures at the community and societal levels”.  

Structural gender inequalities are reflected in the impacts of climate change and the climate action agenda. Climate change exacerbates existing challenges and threats in communities, compounding instability and potentially leading to displacement, migration or conflict, which may threaten human security outcomes. As this happens, the effects are not gender-neutral, and they vary for different population groups. Due to existing structural inequalities prevalent in several communities, different population groups – such as different gender groups — are disproportionately affected and experience differential vulnerabilities, resilience and adaptive capacity to different shocks and hazards.  

The CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security team pioneers research-based evidence on how climate change’s impacts on natural resources, livelihoods and human mobility affect peace and security in different contexts. Within this team, the Gender team ensures that the research, policy, advocacy and engagement initiatives undertaken by the Climate Security team uphold the gender and social inclusion principles. In September 2023, the CGIAR Focus Climate Security Gender Team organised a gender retreat in Cairo, Egypt to ensure the team’s research priorities were gender-sensitive and responsive and, at best, transformative. We asked: Are our methods gender responsive and transformative? Do they address gender-based structural inequalities? If not, how can the CGIAR Focus Climate Security Team’s research on climate security be more gender transformative? This is very pivotal for climate security research to ensure that policy advocacy, training, and engagement efforts are sensitive to the gendered lived realities of the different communities served.  


Understanding gender-transformative approaches 

In principle, GTR has the potential to challenge discriminatory gender structures, yet this has proved difficult to implement in practice. Nevertheless, such approaches are growing, particularly in the agricultural and food science field, and many researchers have begun to utilise participatory, collaborative and action-oriented methodologies, which are key to achieving transformational outcomes.  

IDRC recommends that feminist principles be incorporated into the planning, implementation and dissemination of research in order to best generate a transformative approach. While gendered transformation is a focus within the research field, it is also closely linked to development initiatives. As such, it is important to recognise that “while theory pushes practice, practice can also push theory”, as many non-profit and development organisations are working on the ground to change structures, which feed back into knowledge creation and research.   

Gender transformative approaches in research seek to understand, confront, and challenge the root causes of gendered inequalities deeply entrenched in social institutions. These approaches, first and foremost, seek to deconstruct gendered power relations and biased gender norms, attitudes, behaviours and practices, policies, and laws that create and perpetuate gender inequalities. The aim is to eliminate any structural and systemic forms of gender bias by strengthening equitable gender relations and social institutions that support gender equality.  

Gender transformative approaches examines, analyses, and builds an evidence base to inform long-term practical changes in structural and systemic gender power relations and norms, roles, and inequalities. For better results, this should be an organic process where gender transformative change is demanded and driven from within the communities and societies without being imposed from and by external actors that include development or research actors. This means processes are driven by local perspectives to determine the areas of gender inequality than need to change and the indicators of this change.  

Reflections and lessons from past initiatives 

The CGIAR Focus Climate Security Team has implemented several research projects in mostly rural areas in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Drawing on the research done so far, reflecting on both the positive aspects and the limitations, it is easier to draw gender-transformative priorities for FCM and other research initiatives that may follow.  

Although gender was a strong element of previous climate security research in general, the approach was mainly diagnostic in nature and more of a rapid assessment. Given the need to address some gaps in the literature, especially in relation to the gender dynamics of the climate security nexus, the methodologies did not address some of the critical elements on gender that could lead to addressing and, at most, transforming some of the structural inequalities present in the different communities.  

As such, this approach limited the team in shedding light on capacities for resilience and the gendered adaptation strategies already adopted by the communities and different population groups that can be used to inform localised solutions. Moreover, most of what was presented as gender was mainly focused on women as a vulnerable group that is somewhat passive and in need of help. The fieldwork questions on women’s empowerment were focused on vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as the need for women to ask for permission from their male counterparts. This indirectly pushes women into a passive role in response to climate change rather than highlighting their leadership in driving climate change mitigation and adaptation to enhance water, food, and human security. Moreover, reducing gender to women is problematic because we lose focus on other pertinent issues embedded in the structural inequalities and development initiatives that may disadvantage men and boys. In contrast, gender transformative approaches depart from the view that women in all their diversity are resourceful actors, first responders and creators of resilience. 

Are we there yet? 

Based on the reflections on previous methodologies and fieldwork, there remains some ground to be covered. We need to add some questions to the methodology that bring out women’s leadership role and local power in driving adaptation and that generate evidence for case studies of women as climate security leaders. As such, building on experiences from past methodologies, in preparation for current and future initiatives implemented by the CG Climate Security Team such as ClimBer Phase II, FCM and Gender Equality, the gender team reflected on: 

  1. What gender-transformative methods can be integrated better into the methodologies to ensure more gender-sensitive and transformative approaches and results?   
  1. How to draw on the innovative gender- and climate-related work done by other CGIAR gender researchers e.g., GENDER Impact Platform, the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT’s Gender Team, to inform CGIAR the CG Climate Security team’s work. 

Considering the foregone, it is evident that our work has been gender aware, however with limited focus on critical elements that could address key structural inequalities within communities and lead to gender transformative outcomes. These reflections help shape the way forward in relation to dealing with gender issues in other research initiatives, as detailed below. 

Next steps 

Gender transformative research is more concerned with achieving the highest levels of gender equality by ensuring the empowerment of different genders and reducing gender-based discrimination and inequalities through promoting that aims for transformative change epitomised by institutional change and addressing systemic barriers to the economic empowerment of different genders. Therefore, in CGIAR initiatives such as FCM and Gender Equality, the role of the researchers should be to support processes and stimulate or facilitate discussion in which the community leads change processes. It remains critical that the researcher understands the sociocultural and place dynamics in each community and appreciates that each locality will present unique processes and dynamics. These will often be shaped by the local sociocultural gender norms that shape roles, responsibilities, and benefits of different genders in the locality.  

In other words, the prescribed narratives of what it means to be a man or a woman in any community would determine the pace and outcome of the processes. While all this happens, it remains pertinent to understand four key elements within any community, namely: 1) access to resources, 2) cultural norms and values, 3) access to information and knowledge and 4) participation in leadership and governance. In so doing, it is also critical to consider intersectionality or: “how different social identities, such as gender, socioeconomic status, age, ethnicity, geographical location, marital status and physical abilities, intersect to shape experiences of discrimination and oppression” 

Although there have been lingering inequalities over time, with men mostly having an upper hand, interventions to address the imbalance have heavily focused on women. In the process, dynamics relating to the men and the boy child have been relegated to the margins. This is problematic because it could easily tilt the scales otherwise, with even more challenges for human security. As such, a balanced approach that places both femininities and masculinities at the core of the enquiry will yield better results. 

All these elements will aid the research in tackling the systemic barriers and structural inequalities that promote inequality in the name of culture, values, and norms. This will also help tackle gender holistically, without reducing it to women. 


This work is carried out with support from the CGIAR Initiative on Fragility, Conflict, and Migration and the GENDER Impact Platform. We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund:

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