Bold transformative approaches that address the root causes of gender inequality

Last updated: July 2022

Gender inequality and harmful gender norms remain widespread in the European Union and around the world. 

While sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are at the core of gender equality and women’s rights and empowerment, their attainment varies greatly across the EU: women and girls are disproportionally affected, and particularly people marginalised by systemic failures, face significant barriers to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) care, information and education. This violates their human rights and hinders progress towards gender equality.

In order to realise gender equality and fulfill SRHR, we need to adopt a transformative approach that addresses the gendered structural inequalities and unbalanced power dynamics that are embedded in social structures, including gender gaps, unequal policies, and discrimination.

This can be achieved through actively striving to examine, question, and change harmful gender norms and power imbalances. It involves working holistically with people in all their diversity using an inclusive person-centred, and differentiated approach. This is because gender inequality affects different groups of people in different ways.

About harmful gender norms or stereotypes

Gender norms are social expectations and informal rules about what it means to be a woman or a man. They are shaped by culture and ideologies, which instill learned values and norms in people who then act them out in their behaviour. This means that how we think a woman or a man should behave, also known as ‘gender roles’, is largely determined by the society we live in and the cultural norms we share.

Harmful gender stereotypes are a root cause of gender inequality and gender-based violence. They perpetuate inequalities, for example when societies expect young men to suppress their emotions and demonstrate strength and dominance, whilst young women are encouraged to be polite and accommodating to others, even in situations where they feel uncomfortable.

Traditional gender norms also deny the existence of transgender, non-binary and other gender-diverse persons. They promote a binary understanding of gender, meaning only ‘men’ and ‘women’ are recognized.

Harmful gender stereotypes contribute to human rights violations, discrimination and gender-based violence. Educating people, especially youth, on gender norms, relationships and sexuality can prevent and reduce these harms.

The role of relationship and sexuality education in combating harmful gender norms

Relationship and sexuality education (RSE) can reduce gender-based violence & discrimination. It can help people question commonly accepted behaviours that are in fact harmful to themselves and others. Engaging men and boys is key to help them better understand how they carry power and how they can take up their responsibility in changing a system of inequities that is structurally discriminating and oppressive, but also to reflect on their own needs and behaviours. For example, norms about masculinity often encourage men to view health-seeking behaviours, expressing emotions, and caring for others as signs of weakness. This results in mental health challenges, delayed testing for infections, and unwillingness to access psychological support.

Equally, young women are often expected to be polite and accommodating to others – even in situations where they are made to feel uncomfortable. Conforming to this expectation can make it more difficult for women to know what they want and assert themselves, including in intimate relationships, and can lead to their enduring discrimination or abuse without possessing the skills or confidence to address it.

RSE can help dismantle these archaic stereotypes, which helps to foster equality and prevent violence and coercion. Education is key to identifying harmful behaviour and building up the skill sets to combat it.

Our work on gender equality

Our gender equality work is guided by the IPPF ‘Gender Equality Strategy and Implementation Plan’ which says:

Ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all is crucial to achieving gender equality. For gender relations to be transformed, the structures that underpin them have to change. Women and girls and transgender people should be able to lead lives that are free from violence, they should have opportunities to expand their capabilities and have access to a wide range of resources on the same basis as men and boys. Evidence shows that when men and boys are engaged [...], equal partners and agents of change for gender equality within sexual and reproductive health programmes, transformative change occurs.

IPPF EN cares

Our goal is to progress towards a more gender-equal world where people in all their diversity are released from harmful gender norms and fully empowered to make decisions over their lives and bodies.

About intersectionality

In order to achieve a gender equal world, in an inclusive way, we need to recognise that systems of inequality are based on gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, class and other forms of discrimination that ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects. All forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be addressed simultaneously.

Five ways to achieve a gender-equal world

To move towards a world where power inequities are challenged and systems of oppression are history, we work to strengthen support in the EU Institutions and Member States for gender equality and women’s rights by:

1.  ensuring that policy and decision makers at all levels (EU, national and local) are creating progressive legislative and policy frameworks that protect and advance gender equality & women’s rights;
2.  increasing the demand from citizens for gender equality and women’s rights including SRHR;
3.  advancing emotional literacy and empowering young people, in all their diversity, as a new generation of European citizens, to become leaders and drivers of the long-term change process needed around societal norms and behaviours;
4.  increasing the capacity of civil society organisations and activists to act in a strategic and coordinated manner when promoting gender equality and women’s rights;
5.  ensuring that policy and decision makers at all levels are responding effectively to attempts to introduce regressive policies and to dismantle hard-won gains in relation to women’s agency over their bodies and private life or the protection of women from gender-based violence.

This work is co-funded by the European Union through the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values Programme.

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author (s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or European Education and Culture Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.