Gender transformative policies and programs look to improve equality on an individual and relational level; they examine how traditional structures and norms play out in personal relationships, in education systems, in households and communities. When we challenge harmful gender norms — the “way things just are” — we can begin to chip away at conceptions of gender and power dynamics that have harmed women and men for generations.

Patriarchy and “toxic masculinity” are now part of mainstream conversation, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, and the women who bravely came forward and told the story of a society that still too often views female bodies as collective property, and is quick to judge women’s claims of harm and harassment as hollow or unfounded.

We’ve made huge gains in addressing gender equality and improving the lives of women all over the world. But the work of shifting deeply entrenched power structures is hard and takes time. Cultures all over the world rest on foundations of male dominance. While gender norms play out differently across cultures and over time, we’ve seen some common themes throughout history. Simply put — men are regarded as providers and protectors while women are pigeonholed as caretakers.

In many countries in South Asia, nearly 30% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before their 18th birthday. In sub-Saharan Africa, the adolescent birth rate is more than twice the world average. Gender-based violence remains high across all continents and countries. In the United States, black women are 243% (no there is not a decimal point missing in that statistic) more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes. The gender transformative framework originated out of interventions to address these issues.

We know societies and economies improve when women have access to equal educational and career opportunities. We know women thrive when they are able to exercise full agency over their bodies and their lives. This has benefits that extend beyond the individual — economic empowerment, sustainable development, and infrastructure are all interconnected to women’s equality.

That’s why our work at Collective Impact and CenRID supports gender transformative approaches: the idea that promoting gender equality for women around the world requires expanding our understanding of what it means for a whole community to build an equitable world together, regardless of where we may stand on the gender spectrum.

The SASA! Initiative in Uganda tackles HIV and AIDS prevention through awareness-raising groups and educational programs which help community members unpack power structures that enable epidemics of violence against women, as well as the prevalence of HIV. A recent four year randomized control trial showed that women who participated in these communities reported more equitable relationships with their partners, including increased ability to turn down unwanted sex.

A gender transformative approach is one that understands that we cannot promote “equality” for women and men without first interrogating cultural assumptions around femininity and masculinity from a positive, rather than punitive, perspective.

In Brazil, Promundo emphasizes the idea that men also stand to gain from gender equality by creating space for men to reflect about the ways traditional notions of masculinity have limited their lives.

A gender transformative approach works holistically, examining what goes on in individual relationships as well as within families, communities, institutions, and laws. This approach does not seek to criticize existing traditions and norms in terms of household roles, but instead promotes relationship values of respect, safety and shared decision making as the building blocks of culture change.

The Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) has launched a digital platform that provides new research, insights from practice, and grants for initiatives that increase our understanding of discriminatory gender norms and how we can work to change them.

If we want to break free of traditions and ideas which have bound women and men into rigid roles that limit their potential and public health outcomes, then we must transform gender norms by challenging individual and collective beliefs that contribute to an enabling environment.

Alana Kolundzija

Senior Director, Strategic Planning & Corporate Affairs

Alana Kolundzija works at the intersection of public health, empowerment of women and girls, and reproductive justice