Transforming gender approaches requires men’s involvement

Reflections from a study of gender transformative approaches in Colombia
A woman leader of a sesame seed enterprise explains her work to participants in a ‘learning route’ for rural entrepreneurs in Colombia. Photo by Marlon del Aguila Guerrero/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Historically, women’s spaces have been viewed with suspicion by men, as they are seen to extend beyond the private sphere. These spaces make women’s behaviours, interests, and contributions visible, sparking discussions in public domains. In our recent work in Colombia as part of the Global Gender Transformative Approaches Initiative for Women’s Land Rights, we have noted that the promotion of these spaces as part of development activities has frequently led to the exclusion of men. This observation prompts us to offer some reflections.

While the importance of women’s spaces is recognized within the framework of gender approaches, this should not imply excluding men from conversations and practices aimed at transforming gender relations. Development initiatives and projects should strive to ensure the inclusion of all stakeholders. This is important not only for achieving equity, but also because failing to include men can impose an additional burden on women.

In Colombia’s Cauca and Bolivar departments, the Ministry of Agriculture is implementing a rural development programme, supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and we have conducted research on the gendered impacts of the programme for the global study Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender Transformative Approaches (WRR). In our conversations with participants, women have made it clear that without the help and support of the men in their families and communities, they would not have made the improvements and progress they feel they have today. 

While spaces for women’s interactions are essential (as they provide opportunities to understand gender inequalities and to learn in an environment where common challenges are discovered), such spaces often result in pressure on women to pass on what they have learned to their husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, and/or brothers. This creates an additional burden: not only must they find ways to participate in women’s spaces in the midst of a multitude domestic and family tasks, but they must also find ways to pass on the knowledge to the men and boys in their families and/or communities. 

Moreover, the deliberate exclusion of men from these spaces can evoke resistance, as such men may lack awareness of the discussions taking place or the broader objectives aimed at common wellbeing. This lack of understanding can lead to rejection and conflict.

Many women involved in the study expressed that the men in their families often complain that most recent development projects seem to be focused exclusively on women, and that they tend to hold negative perceptions of such activities and their objectives.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if our husbands were here too, listening and learning about all the same things?” said one participant. “I’m fortunate that my partner understands and supports me in this mission, and is now taking care of our children while I’m here participating in these activities,” said another. “I’m not as lucky,” responded a third: “my husband is falling apart right now because I’m away from home for a few days; he hasn’t had the opportunity to understand this knowledge that I now have.”

The comments were shared during a recent WRR activity in which we brought together a group of women and men leaders in a five-day ‘learning route’ to discuss fundamental lessons to support gender transformative approaches (GTAs) to rural development. The study is led by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) as part of a consortium, and implemented in Colombia by a team from the Observatory of Indigenous Territories and Smallholder Farmers at Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. 

GTAs emphasize structural change. This means not just including or ’empowering’ women, but also addressing deep-seated structural barriers to gender equality. These barriers encompass discriminatory systems, formal policies, and informal institutions, such as social norms and regulations, which have historically excluded and, in many cases, subjected women to violence when exercising their rights. GTAs put forward a set of activities and processes that seek to change these structures and promote true equality of rights—in this case, by focusing on access to land and resources in rural areas. 

To shift entrenched structural barriers to gender equality, it is clear that men need to be involved. This is an important and necessary step to achieve the true gender transformation to which GTAs aspire. Promoting economic and social development must not lead to exclusion, and should instead adopt innovative approaches to ensure inclusivity across diverse backgrounds.

This is why, drawing from the initial findings of our study in Colombia, we believe that to effectively address gender barriers in development, it is crucial to foster spaces that encompass not only women but also the men that coexist and engage with them, so that they receive the same knowledge and tools that are deployed in pursuit of the transformation. 

Involving men does not mean losing the valuable women’s spaces that have been built up over time in communities and development spaces. We do not suggest merging or invading these spaces, as we recognise the importance of maintaining separate and safe spaces for women; however, we do propose, based on the testimonies collected, bringing everyone to the table to discuss changes together. This will not only alleviate the additional burden on women to pass on messages and advocate for themselves, but will also help advance the overall goal of transformation towards gender equity. 

Juliana Buitrago and Javier Eduardo Álvarez are early career researchers at the Observatory of Indigenous Territories and Smallholder Farmers at Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.

This is the fourth of a blog series covering the activities of the study Securing Women’s Resource Rights through gender transformative approaches (WRR) in Colombia.


This research is part of work on Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender-Transformative approaches. In 2020, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) invited a consortium of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to work with selected IFAD projects to promote and strengthen women’s land rights through the integration of gender transformative approaches (GTAs) in rural development interventions by improving policies, tools and practices.

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets Gender