Research principles and practice to transform unequal gender relations

September 11, 2019
a group of young girls
Jonathan Torgovnik/AJWS

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore the critical objective to “leave no one behind”, but important gaps in data prevent the global community from fully seeing, counting, and valuing women, girls, and other marginalized populations. It is impossible to meet the SDGs when the challenges affecting these individuals are not known or understood.

Research highlights

Research on transforming gender relations revealed common agreement among practitioners on core feminist research principles:

  • Meaningfully include and empower women and girls
  • Understand diversity and consider context
  • Challenge power and promote equality
  • Design and use research for purposeful action

IDRC and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) designed a study to identify actionable feminist practices that can increase the impact of research that aims to transform gender relations. This type of research moves beyond the individual to the structural to address the root causes of gender inequality.

The researchers conducted a comprehensive literature review and interviews with 19 gender-transformative change leaders from 17 academic and advocacy organizations worldwide. Questions revolved around how organizations conceptualize gender-transformative change, the role of research in reducing gender inequalities, and the best practices for research to transform gender relations.

Research principles to drive transformation for women and girls

Using research for gender-transformative change: Principles and practice presents the review’s findings. Interviewees, including experts surveyed via the literature review, indicated that several core principles are crucial for building a research practice with the potential to transform the lives of women and girls. Most of these principles are closely related to well-established feminist and critical theory approaches to research. The common agreement about these principles suggests that they are critical to achieving gender-transformative change.

Meaningfully include and empower women and girls:

  • Value the expertise and knowledge of women, girls, and other marginalized groups;
  • Ensure women, girls, and other marginalized people have ownership over the research process and findings; and
  • Privilege the voices of groups that have traditionally been silenced or underrepresented.

Understand diversity and consider context:

  • Challenge the notion that there are only two gender identities (male and female) that look the same everywhere;
  • Understand that there are intersecting systems of oppression based on gender, class, race, and other aspects of identity; and
  • Recognize how gender roles and identities change over time and differ by context.

Challenge power and promote equality:

  • Challenge the traditional power dynamics between researchers and research subjects;
  • Promote empowerment efforts that also reduce inequality; and
  • Use the research process and findings to catalyze change in the lives and work of participants.

Design and use research for purposeful action:

  • Create research in alignment with a larger social change agenda;
  • Share the knowledge gained with research participants and the community; and
  • Build networks, alliances, and collective action to put research to use.

Best practices for gender-transformative research

a group of women and men in India
Jonathan Torgovnik/AJWS

The review highlights how these principles can be applied on the ground and describes best research practices for gender-transformative change at each stage: design, implementation, and use.  

Research planning:

  • Always begin research planning with a gender analysis;
  • Collaborate and build partnerships;
  • Engage local advocates and actors from the start of the research planning; and
  • Develop a theory of change, including ways of measuring incremental progress.

Research implementation:

  • Validate the experiences and expertise of marginalized groups as legitimate sources of knowledge;
  • Use participatory methods;
  • Focus on capturing the lived experiences of women and girls; and
  • Empower participants to use findings to create change in their communities.

Research dissemination and use:

  • Create platforms for those who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to share their views;
  • Share powerful narratives, including stories of gender inequality;
  • Use research to build alliances and learning spaces that support empowerment efforts; and
  • Strengthen initiatives to transform and influence policy by contributing strong evidence.

Below are several examples that illustrate how organizations have put best practices to work.

The Indian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Abhivyakti Media for Development is conducting an action research project in 10 rural communities on the issues of young women’s education, livelihoods, and rights. During the planning stage, a workshop for the youth included gender analysis.  Adolescents identified the factors that nurture and hinder the growth of young girls in their communities. The adolescents analyzed what keeps young women from participating in literacy and basic skills programs and how to use findings to advocate for new services and policy changes.

Video Volunteers, an international media and human rights NGO, challenges ideas about who gets to create knowledge by training community members to use cameras for community storytelling. The participatory methods allow people to speak directly about their lived experiences on video, rather than others speaking for them. Video Volunteers then empowers participants to create change in their communities by incorporating the videos into formats that can be used to pressure government officials to act.

An organization in Egypt (whose name is withheld for security reasons) crowdsources reports of sexual harassment and assault to promote change. The tool creates a platform for women to anonymously report incidents. This allows women to share narratives that broaden the community’s understanding of the forms sexual harassment can take. By disseminating map results via television and social media, the project staff built alliances and provided evidence that helped spur activism among 20 anti-harassment groups and agencies. As a result, the government set up dozens of safe zones with increased police presence and Cairo University implemented a new sexual harassment policy.

Expanding the use of feminist research

To more effectively use gender-transformative research as a social change tool, donors, governments, organizations, and researchers need to offer guidance and support on how to adopt feminist principles and engage in feminist research. Greater collaboration is required to increase and improve feminist research practices, and more data and evidence are needed to measure gender transformative change across sectors.

The community of researchers, practitioners, and advocates dedicated to feminist research is growing rapidly. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to better organize the field, increase expertise through collaborative networks, and ensure that funding for this critical work is sustained.