Transformative approach to achieve gender equality: Envisioning Gender Transformative Lab (GTL)

Gender inequality is a serious global problem that is deeply rooted in our society, where discrimination starts before a child is even born. Gender biases have continuously created barriers for women throughout their lives and are usually internalised in a way that prevents them from recognising that they are treated unfairly.

Despite over four decades of development efforts to address gender inequality in the Global South, the progress is limited to some physical achievements (such as some specific percentage of women in some decision-making bodies) and while that is important, it often neglects the biased mindset that perpetuates inequality through existing social structures and systems. Often the achievement is perceived in the form of small incremental change, which hardly considers transforming structural roots such as gender norms, masculine mindsets and social structures that are discriminatory to women and girls.

Gender Transformative Lab (GTL) is an initiative by the Institute of Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD) led by Dr. Basundhara Bhattarai, Senior Advisor for Gender, Disability, and Social Inclusion (GEDSI). GTL is designed to promote collaborative learning and facilitate critical reflections, knowledge sharing, and practice-based dialogues, with a view of investigating policy and strategic solutions to explore pathways for gender transformative change. Moreover, GTL brings together development efforts from various fields, cultural contexts, and policy/practice arenas to inspire transformative thinking in gender justice. The IFSD team had a conversation with Dr. Bhattarai about why she founded GTL and her vision around it.

As a gender specialist working in the development sector what are the existing challenges that you have seen or faced when it comes to addressing gender equality and what are the efforts being made to overcome them?

I have been working in the development sector for more than two decades, focusing on gender equality, social inclusion and poverty alleviation, making several attempts to address exclusionary mindsets and policies. When I started my career in the Himalayan South Asian region, the challenges were very different. It was also a time when policy debates on gender equality began to evolve. There were few women professionals working in the natural resource management (NRM) sector and often I used to be only one female professional working with a large number of male professionals both in office and field settings. Back then, the idea of community participation was not very common. It was very difficult for women to be involved, particularly in the environmental sector, which was, and still is, a male dominated sector of development. At the community level, women sometimes still feel hesitant to take part in community meetings, largely because of the socio-cultural factors coupled with heavy workload of household and farming tasks.

If we take the case of Nepal where I started my professional work in the 90s, the community forestry sub-sector was a pioneer program that included a variety of policies and institutional arrangements fostering women’s participation in resource control and benefit sharing. Nepal’s forest policy requires 50 percent of women to be represented in the decision-making body of the community forestry groups. This is good progress; however, increasing the number of women in the decision-making process is only a first step in the struggle for gender justice. True gender equality requires the meaningful participation of women at all stages of decision-making and action.The irony here, however, is that despite the good intention of policies and programs, ‘participatory exclusion’ is occurring, to borrow the phrase of Bina Agarwal.

” Women are invited to participate but their voices are not heard, and policies look gender responsive on the surface but are fundamentally inadequate or flawed.

One clear example I have seen is some water sector policies require a certain percentage of women in the decision-making body of water user groups at the local level. However, the same policies also impose eligibility criteria such as, to be a member of the decision-making body, one must have land or household ownership entitlement, which women do not have in most cases (as land and household ownership is highly skewed towards men, and this is true in South Asia and many developing countries), which excludes women from membership. Another similar example is, some policies require academic qualification and certain years of work experience in the respective sector to be eligible to become a member of the decision-making bodies, which most women do not have, again primarily because of their historical exclusion. What this means is one clause of the policy encourages women’s representation while another clause of the same policy discriminates against women. I have also observed that such representation policies which do not take into prevalent structural inequalities such as property ownerships have further marginalised or disempowered women. So, even the seemingly gender-responsive policies are paradoxical, as they both encourage women’s representation but also systematically exclude them by imposing eligible requirements that most women do not have.

Furthermore, I have also found that in some sectors, women are receiving training on skills related to livelihoods and empowerment. However, such training too often does not help break the chains of injustice. What I have seen is while women are given biodiversity conservation training, the training does not resonate and articulate women’s traditional and indigenous knowledge. Such training does not get to the heart of what matters to women not only from their livelihood perspective but also from a conservation perspective. Also, such training is too often focused on technical topics and not on how they can nurture and cultivate critical actions for change.

So, while there is much increase in the awareness of gender inequality, people have hardly realised the invisible barriers largely coming from patriarchal mindsets that hinder gender-equitable power relations.

Through IFSD’s initiative – Gender Transformative Lab (GTL), we are planning to explore the gaps between policy and practice, most of which are subtle and important to be considered but are often easily ignored. We also aim to explore how women’s agencies can be enhanced so that they can take leadership in the process of systemic and structural change.

Over the years of working in this field you have seen different approaches to addressing gender inequality. How does the GTL approach the issue of gender inequality, and how is it different from the approaches that have already been taken?

Research and publications on gender inequality issues have certainly increased the understanding of it. However, policy and practice which entails work on gender and development still fall short of the actions required to trigger transformational change, both at system and practice levels. There is a positive shift in discourse about community-based development, but the community/or the institution is also a host of unjust social relations. People tend to focus on either local or national scales but what we really need to focus on is multi-scale processes to trigger change. Transformation also requires the decolonisation of past discourses and knowledge. We also need to learn from our mistakes from the past rather than hide the important lessons. Emerging cases of positive deviance can also illuminate how systemic change unravels and how that can be catalysed.

IFSD started GTL with the aim to further explore why transformative change is slow and how we can tackle the continuing disconnect between research, policy, and practice to achieve gender equality.

We will highlight the issues that professionals face and attempt to address inequalities. I think we need to connect critical researchers and advocates who embrace transformative change in thinking and practice. I am aware of many efforts made by researchers, practitioners and policymakers to catalyse gender equality, but the actual work still tends to be guided by the limited understanding of the complex cultural and structural barriers to gender transformative change.

GTL will help a global community of practice to critically reflect upon unquestioned assumptions and explore approaches and tools that could trigger transformative change.

What are the initiatives that GTL plans and how do you assure GTL not only promotes inclusivity and diversity but is truly “gender transformative” as opposed to merely “gender-sensitive” or “gender mainstreaming”?

I strongly believe that if we truly want to make our actions effective and address gender inequality, then just an incremental approach is not enough. The existing gender biases and inequalities are deeply rooted in our society and often internalised among professionals and excluded groups themselves. So, we need a transformative approach that aims to address the structural and cultural roots of gender inequality, specifically our mindsets and institutions that exacerbate gender inequality. We will ensure diversity and inclusion in our discussions while choosing experts not only on the basis of gender but also other aspects such as geography, culture, experience of policy-practice work and so on. We will also invite experts from developed countries to get their understanding of contextual realities as gender inequality persists there as well but in different forms. GTL is of course not about solving gender inequality problem – it is about how champions of gender justice can acknowledge the systemic and historic roots of exclusion and deepen their analytical skills to identify and act on the opportunities for transformative gender justice.

Lastly, how will you ensure that GTL will be impactful?

GTL will bring experts from various backgrounds and expertise, comprising professionals deeply engaged in overcoming gender inequality and intersectional marginalisation. We will not only be looking at the challenges of gender inequality, but through our reflective sessions will be advancing socio-historical analysis of the gaps to understand where we need to redirect our attention. Key messages from our meetings will also be documented and reports will be made available on IFSD’s GTL page and other forums as necessary. We also aim to pilot some of our reflections emerging from GTL in real world situations to create action-based lessons.

” GTL aims to invite, engage, and network champions of change working at the forefront of the challenges in specific contexts across the Global South.

Gender injustice is of course a huge social problem, that has roots in history and society. So, our attempts will be to create critical awareness of the challenges and possibilities for change, as well as nurture a network of practitioners, researchers and decision-makers looking to make a difference but also looking for new ideas, approaches and tools to use.

Dr. Basundhara Bhattarai is the Senior Advisor for Gender, Disability, and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) at the Insitute for Study and Development Worldwide (IFSD). She is an internationally recognised specialist on gender and development with over 20 years of experience. Her work focuses on gender justice in climate resilience and international development, including natural resource management and livelihoods. She has investigated gender and intersectional challenge in the context of poverty, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, and water security. She has consulted national organisations and international development agencies like DFAT, USAID, DFID, IFAD, and IDRC. She holds a PhD in Gender, Environment & Development from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

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Views and opinions mentioned here are those of the experts and in no way reflect the views and positions of IFSD. These views are meant for general advice and informing public debates around the challenges, and do not represent any legal or problem-solving advice. Neither IFSD nor any of the individuals associated with this post will take any responsibility from any loss resulting from the use of information published here.