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Gender equality: Making a transformative impact


A 16-year-old girl makes her way through a busy alley in a suburb of Dakar. She’s got a lot on her mind. She has a question related to her reproductive health and has been struggling to find a reliable answer. She heard a rumour that there might be a health clinic down this alley but can’t find it.  

She is dealing with this health issue alone because she’s too afraid to ask her parents or teachers for help. Too afraid of being judged. Many adolescent girls in Senegal face reproductive health issues — from painful periods to birth-control needs to sexual abuse — with little support. Reproductive health services for adolescent girls exist, but health ministry research has shown that few know how to access them. 

This story is an example of how culturally rooted gender norms and attitudes can dictate the quality of a woman’s health care. Norms and attitudes not only affect her health; they can also influence her mobility, security, safety, education, livelihood and many other aspects of her life. 

Gender inequality — and how people experience it within households, organizations, and communities — is the product of how different social systems and structures are designed, negotiated and implemented. Influencing positive change at these levels depends on evidence that moves beyond simply identifying inequalities.  

Practical support, services, and training can go a long way toward improving opportunities for women. However, to ensure these opportunities are sustainable and grounded in local realities, we need to confront the underlying norms and systems at the root of gender-based inequalities. 

Worldwide, there is growing recognition that simply being aware of gender disparities is not enough, and that significant, sustainable change requires institutional and systemic transformations. Research that focuses on tackling this kind of foundational change is often referred to as gender transformative.  

 What is gender-transformative research, and why is it so important? 

Gender-transformative research examines, questions and analyzes the underlying causes of gender inequalities and builds an evidence base to address them. It promotes women’s empowerment, including shared control of resources and decision-making. It unpacks social inequalities, providing space for women, men and non-binary genders to learn. And it engages people across the socio-economic spectrum to change the norms that enable inequalities.  

Research is gender-transformative if these considerations are addressed in its rationale and methodology and if it includes a rigorous analysis of root causes, gender power relations and intersectionality (multiple vulnerabilities experienced by individuals or groups alongside gender, such as race, class, sexual orientation and ethnicity). This approach to research is important because it tackles inequalities in ways that reflect lived experiences and promotes sustainable solutions that address root causes.  

Gender-transformative research is underway in Senegal to address lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It supports youth, especially adolescent girls, to effectively exercise and advocate for their rights to access and enjoy reproductive health.  

For example, a digital and community hub set up by the Senegalese organization ALPHADEV provides adolescents with access to information and advice about reproductive care and gender-based violence, and opportunities to share resources, without fear of judgement or reprisals. It is part of Better reproductive health for adolescent girls in Senegal – ADOS, a partnership between Global Affairs Canada and IDRC.   

ALPHADEV collaborated with adolescents to design the hub. It can be accessed via mobile technology but also provides in-person information at what’s called advice shops for anyone unconnected to the internet. The pilot involves 200 adolescents, 60% of whom are girls, and the team is now considering ways to implement the initiative across the country. It’s the beginning of a change in norms around adolescent reproductive health and gender-based-violence prevention in the country.  

Gender research at IDRC

ALPHADEV’s digital and community hub is part of an IDRC push to support more gender-transformative research. Building evidence on gender equality has been a priority for IDRC throughout its history, from ensuring that women participate in research projects as researchers and beneficiaries to identifying how to scale much needed services, like child care or sexual and reproductive health rights.   

All IDRC-supported research considers gender in its rationale and most of it addresses gender equality through the meaningful participation of women in marginalized communities, for example, or by generating new data on gender inequality. In addition to these contributions, IDRC estimates that 17% of its research support is invested in gender-transformative work. At the time of this writing, the Centre is supporting 143 active, gender-transformative projects with an investment of 149 million CAD.

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Here is a sample of some of those projects:

Transforming gender relations is a review of 10 years of IDRC’s gender programming (from 2008 to 2018), providing a deep dive into six gender-transformative projects.   

We are continually evolving in our effort to hone a strategic and systematic approach toward gender equality in the research that we support, including equality for gender-diverse persons. Enshrined in our Equality Statement is a commitment to support expert researchers and advocates who work to transform harmful norms, stereotypes and inequalities in their countries and communities.

Through these investments, IDRC is contributing to Goal 5 of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calling for continued action to reduce gender inequality and empower women. 

IDRC’s commitment to gender equality is also squarely aligned with Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, which reflects Canada’s commitment to gender equality here at home and around the world.