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Gender transformative approaches in agriculture, food and nutrition security: the EU’s approach

The discourse around gender transformation in development has been growing in recent years. This is a result of growing evidence that overly technical approaches around gender mainstreaming and the empowerment of women are failing to address the systemic causes of gender inequality.

In the rural sector, gender mainstreaming initiatives tend to aim for the economic empowerment of women by promoting access to assets (such as improved technology, training or credit) that will contribute to short-term productivity gains.  It is now accepted that for longer-term sustainable benefits, women not only need to work productively, but also to have a voice in how the income that they generate is spent. Women want transformative change through which the quality of their lives improve, the time they spend on unpaid domestic and care work is reduced, they are free from violence, and they live on an equal footing with men.

Gender transformative approaches aim for this alternative vision for women and girls by tackling the underlying causes of gender inequality - social norms, attitudes, beliefs and patriarchal value systems – that create structural power imbalances between the sexes. Gender transformative approaches are about doing things differently; they are not the last point along a continuum of technical and non-political approaches, but they are a departure from the norm.  They strive for long-term social change, viewed not as a linear process but as something that involves contractions, resistance and setbacks along the way. Importantly, and in recognition of the fact that outsiders cannot alone deliver empowerment to others, participation from those women whose rights are being denied are placed at the centre of this approach.

The EU is committed to a gender transformative gender approach, and this is highlighted in the EU’s new Gender Action Plan (GAP 2016 - 2020).  GAP puts in evidence the link between gender inequalities and disparities and food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture and suggests ways to pursue a transformative change for an equal access to land and assets, and control over resources, including in the financial and service delivery sectors.

In the agriculture, food and nutrition sector, a number of activities over the last year have clearly demonstrated this commitment.

Firstly, the EU brought the language of transformation to the fore during a conference held in Rome in December last year – Step it up together with rural women to end hunger and poverty  which was an EU / UN initiative (1). The last round table event of the conference -  A Gender Transformative Approach to Ending Poverty, Hunger and Undernutrition – was organised by the EU, and was a fitting way to end the conference on a high note that looked to a new future in tackling rural gender inequalities. The conversation of this round table centred around the fact that rural gender equality will not be achieved unless women are put at the centre of all development activities as key agents of change. Giving women a voice, and building their power by investing in women’s organisations and social movements was seen as critical.

Fatima Shabodien, Country Director of the NGO Action Aid based in South Africa, challenged the audience by telling them that you cannot ‘projectify’ women’s freedom – locking it into a logical framework with indicators to measure change. Estrella Penunia, Secretary General of the Asian Farmer’s Association, shared an example from Nepal where activists, including her association and other civil society organisations, have lobbied for a policy change that allows land to be registered in the name of both husband and wife.

Strong emphasis was also placed on how to measure transformation and its impact on the lives of rural women and girls. Fatimah Kelleher, a women’s rights activist and gender consultant, referred to women in Northern Nigeria who control their own incomes, but still live in seclusion with few rights outside their homes. Understanding such complex scenarios, Kelleher stressed, calls for accurate on-the-ground information about the lives of women and girls.

This conference represented a starting point from which other EU-lead transformative initiatives in the rural sector have followed.

Gender–related support to Headquarters and delegations have been cemented with a “guidance note” (2) to help staff integrate gender equality into agricultural investments. A gender transformative approach is explained in this brief, with examples of the types of activities that bring about social change, such as women’s participation in community level organisations, cooperatives, associations, farmers’ groups, networks or movements, or activities that involve men.  An appendix lists useful guides and tools for integrating gender dimensions into the agriculture, food and nutrition sector, including some up-to-date material on gender transformative change.

In order to bring about long-term sustainable social change, lessons need to be learnt from the past. The DEVCO C1 reviewed 12 agribusiness projects to assess how gender equality has been addressed with the aim of identifying key success factors for future replication. Using a four-point gender rating from blind to transformative, the review (3) identified some interesting gender transformative initiatives at the heart of EU investments, and summarised the most common of these as:

  • supporting women to open bank accounts;
  • promoting women’s awareness and voice around their land rights, for example through radio programmes;
  • employing women in new sectors;
  • supporting women in non-traditional positions such as pasture and infrastructure committees, branch offices community chairs and raising awareness levels (including men’s awareness) in communities about their role;
  • focusing on addressing gender inequalities at the household level through, for example, training;
  • and participation of rural women and women’s groups in public policy. 

A key conclusion of the review was that in order to bring about transformative change through behaviour change, projects must be at least three years long.

Looking to the future, DEVCO C1 is supporting some of the learning around gender transformative approaches in the rural sector through increased collaboration with the Rome-based-agencies (FAO, IFAD and WFP). This collaboration will include sharing of knowledge and best practice from the past to design sustainable transformative initiatives that change the lives of women and girls not in the short term but forever. It will also include consolidating and reflecting on the discourse around gender transformative approaches in the rural sector as it is today and steering it in a relevant direction for future initiatives not only from the EU but from other agencies working in the sector.


1. Zoom: ‘No women, no development, no dignity.’ A report on the Step It Up event. 

2. Because Women Matter: Designing interventions in food, nutrition and agriculture that allow women to change their lives.

3. Women's Economic Empowerment through EU agribusiness projects, summary report

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Maria Ketting DEVCO-C1
14 November 2017

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