Adapting Gender Transformative Approaches During Crises: Lessons from Uganda and Kenya

FSN Network
6 min readDec 13, 2023

By: Valerie Rhoe Davis, Senior Technical Advisor of Gender-Sensitive and Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture, CRS; Buoro Edward, Gender Youth and Social Dynamics Lead, NAWIRI Activity, CRS-Kenya; Lillian Ojanduru, Gender Technical Advisor, CRS-Uganda

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This blog was submitted by Catholic Relief Services as part of the ‘Nourishing Inclusion: Committing to Gender and Youth in the Food Crisis’ series, which showcases implementers’ examples of committing to inclusion not just in words, but in action. This post highlights Commitment 4: Implement transformative programming that addresses social norms and power dynamics related to gender and age. Learn more about the series here.

A graphic illustration of Committing to Inclusion in the Food Crisis, as a wheel. In the center of the wheel is “Committing to Inclusion in the Food Crisis”. Clockwise from the top: Improve data collection; regular data analysis and reflection; implement transformative programming; incorporative programming; incorporate lessons learned; standalone budgets for gender and youth; no sectoral siloes; engage the private sector; support safe migration; meaningful engagement to promote agency.
Commitment wheel courtesy of GAYA

With decades of compelling evidence highlighting the pivotal importance of gender equality, development projects are now embedding Gender Transformative Approaches (GTAs) into their programming more than ever. These interventions not only tackle the immediate consequences of gender inequality but also delve into addressing the underlying structural factors perpetuating it. But, what happens when there is an emergency? How does a crisis impact the implementation of gender transformative interventions?

In Kenya and Uganda, two USAID-funded programs led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) faced this exact question in 2022 and 2020 respectively. In Kenya, the Nawari program encountered a complex set of emergencies in Marsabit and Isiolo counties, including a multi-season drought, the disruptive presence of COVID-19, and the staggering surge in food prices. Meanwhile, in Uganda, the Nuyok program (derived from the Karamojong word for “it is ours”) confronted the double burden of COVID-19, followed by rising food prices in the Karamoja region.

Both of these programs were originally designed to be gender-transformative, with GTAs embedded from the start. However, in light of these unexpected challenges, both projects had to quickly adapt their GTAs to ensure their work remained gender-transformative, even in the face of crisis.

Navigating Drought and Disruption to Ensure Gender Equality

In Kenya, the Nawiri project included a SMART Couples intervention, an activity that coaches cohabitating couples to communicate better and adopt joint decision-making behaviors related to agriculture; water, sanitation, and health (WASH); nutrition; maternal and child health; natural family planning; and household economics. In June 2022, even as COVID-19 and a prolonged drought were ongoing, the team introduced SMART Couples and it was embraced by the community. In particular, men reported appreciating this approach because it focused on both partners rather than just women.

Edward Buoro, Gender Youth and Social Dynamics Lead, engages with Abdirazak and Aminas’ family in a USAID Nawiri Project household visit. Photo credits: Anthony Nyandiek, CRS, USAID Nawiri

However, as the crises continued and families lost their livestock, men stopped coming to their SMART Couples sessions. Some men migrated to other communities or to the fora (pastoral areas where herders relocate during drought). From community feedback meetings and discussions with women participants who attended SMART Couples sessions, the project team learned that some men who remained in the community did not attend due to low self-esteem, stemming from the inability to provide for their families. Despite this absence, women participants wanted to continue as planned and promised “to share the lessons when they return home.”

The Nawiri team knew they needed to adapt to re-integrate the SMART Couples men and ensure gender-transformative success. Led by the Gender, Youth, and Social Dynamics Lead, Buoro Edward, the team reflected on program data to adapt the intervention in three key ways:

  • Adaptation 1: The team moved the SMART Couples intervention to the communities where the participating families relocated, despite the additional travel for staff.
  • Adaptation 2: The team scaled up the SMART Couples intervention in the communities where the original participant families had relocated, inviting new couples to participate.
  • Adaptation 3: The team layered SMART Couples onto Nawiri’s Adapted Nutrition Graduation Model (AN-GM) which provides monthly cash transfers to meet the basic needs of pregnant and lactating women, young women with children under five, and those with malnourished children. AN-GM also provides business grants, coaching and mentorship to participants, 92% of whom are women.

The third adaptation proved especially impactful. By layering SMART Couples onto AN-GM, Nawiri implemented a whole-household approach; not only did this method reach families facing the highest levels of malnutrition, but it encouraged gender-transformative, positive changes with SMART Couples.

Some of the most notable positive changes include:

  1. Participants shared that SMART Couples strengthened couples’ communication and relationships; joint decision-making, planning, and budgeting; and women’s control of resources.
  2. SMART Couples engaged male partners and reduced conflict over the use of increased household income.
  3. Of the AN-GM businesses, those operated by SMART Couples participants had more labor support from their male partners who also supported the business. For example, the men supported by investing profits back into the business, running business errands, and reviewing the books of accounts and returns.
  4. AN-GM businesses operated by SMART Couples participants also operated more harmoniously. Involving the business owners’ spouses increased each family’s motivation to succeed and encouraged the most appropriate use of profits.

CRS Nuyok’s Adaptive Management with Male Change Agents

In Uganda, the Nuyok program implemented the Male Change Agent (MCA) approach to bring about positive change in attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions toward gender norms. For example, the MCAs promoted couples sharing household decisions and chores and men caring for children. By June 2019, the project was already reporting successes and by April 2020 Nuyok had trained 1611 MCAs to carry out this work. But a new challenge had arrived: COVID-19.

When Uganda entered the COVID-19 lockdown, Nuyok frontline staff and MCAs observed a spike in Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The team’s Gender Technical Advisor, Lillian Ojanduru, responded by reviewing Feedback and Response Mechanism (FRM) and district-level GBV data, along with consulting frontline staff, the Nuyok gender team, and District Community Development Officers (DCDOs). Information and feedback from these sources confirmed spikes in GBV, particularly rape/defilement, psychological abuse, and forced child marriage.

Nuyok quickly adapted the MCA approach to address these issues, leveraging the close relationship between the DCDOs, MCAs, and their peer groups.

Adaptation 1: The team integrated messaging around GBV into the MCA sessions to address child marriage, rape, and psychological abuse. Originally, Nukok trained MCAs to promote joint decision making, healthy relationships, and effective communication; but in response to the incoming data the team adapted to include GBV- and COVID-19-specific messaging. The MCAs tailored these messages to specific audiences, including women, men, and the general community.

For example, MCAs promoted the message:

“The state of emergency / confinement / government restrictions are not an excuse for violence. Be a leader: keep yourself, your family, and community healthy and protected. Say no to any form of violence.”

Another message MCAs promoted included:

“With the COVID-19 measures, your wives, daughters, sisters and mothers might have more domestic duties. Let’s help them!”

Adaptation 2: Equipped with messaging appropriate for the new and changing context, MCAs joined radio talk shows (a trusted information source in the community) to share COVID-19 and GBV messaging.

After the lockdown, district-level government data, available for two districts, showed there was a substantial reduction in many forms of GBV. In fact, there were even fewer incidents than pre-COVID-19! Close collaboration between Nuyok and the DCDOs was critical to the success of this adaptation, as it was important to have the district’s buy-in to ensure they prioritized promoting the messaging.

This graph illustrates the spike in GBV in April to June 2020, and the subsequent drop from July to September.

Embracing Adaptive Management for Gender-Transformative Approaches

Around the world, crises have the power to affect gender dynamics and relationships. When such challenges arise, it is essential for project and community leaders to take a step back and pause and reflect on incoming data, to quickly and accurately identify contextual changes and their risks. In times of crisis, program strategies must be agile enough to respond to their evolving needs, as social norms and power dynamics shift. However, these shifts also present an opportunity to harness change for the better, fostering positive, gender-transformative change, even in the face of crisis.

Get Involved

Do you have an example of how your organization has committed to inclusion in the food crisis to share? We’d love to hear about it! Send them to gaya@savechildren.org.

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