Progress Along the Gender Continuum

Objective: To foster critical thinking on gender empowerment approaches and help staff analyze their own approaches.

Materials/Preparation: Flipchart paper, pens or markers, the Five Stages of Gender Equity Continuum, flipchart papers that outline the continuum:
1 Harmful -- 2 Neutral -- 3 Sensitive -- 4 Responsive -- 5 Transformative

Participants: CARE staff and partners. The ISOFI Toolkit recommends about 4-25 participants for this exercise.


Following introductions and a review of the exercise’s objectives, the facilitator explains the five stages of the Gender Equity Continuum and gives examples of each, allowing space for questions and clarifications:



Stage 1: Harmful

Program approaches reinforce inequitable gender stereotypes, or disempower certain people in the process of achieving program goals. A poster that shows a person who is HIV-positive as a skeleton, bringing the risk of death to others, will reinforce negative stereotypes and will not empower those who are living with HIV.

Showing only virile, strong men in condom advertisements reinforces a common stereotype of masculinity. Another example is a program that reinforces women’s role as children’s caretakers by making children’s health services unfriendly toward fathers, rather than encouraging equality in parenting responsibilities.

Stage 2: Neutral

Program approaches or activities do not actively address gender stereotypes and discrimination.

Gender-neutral programming is a step ahead on the continuum because such approaches at least do no harm. However, they often are less than effective because they fail to respond to gender-specific needs.

Prevention messages that are not targeted to any one sex, such as “be faithful,” make no distinction between the needs of women and men. Also, gender-neutral care and treatment services may fail to recognize that women might prefer female counselors and health care providers to male providers.

Stage 3: Sensitive

Program approaches or activities recognize and respond to the different needs and constraints of individuals based on their gender and sexuality. These activities significantly improve women’s (or men’s) access to protection, treatment, or care. But by themselves they do little to change the larger contextual issues that lie at the root of gender inequities; they are not sufficient to fundamentally alter the balance of power in gender relations. Providing women with female condoms recognizes that the male condom is male- controlled, and takes into account the imbalance in power that makes it difficult for women to negotiate condom use. Efforts to integrate STI treatment services with family planning services helps women access such services without fear of stigmatization.

Stage 4: Responsive

Program approaches or activities help men and women examine societal gender expectations, stereotypes, and discrimination, and their impact on male and female sexual health and relationships. Stepping Stones, a well-known life skills training program, addresses HIV/AIDS as well as broader community issues through social change activities that encourage participants to question the reasons why people behave the way that they do. Participants are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and others to promote safer, more productive, behavior in the future. Such projects work with both men and women to redefine gender norms and encourage healthy sexuality for both.

Stage 5: Transformative

Program approaches or activities actively seek to build equitable social norms and structures in addition to individual gender-equitable behavior. Instituto Promundo’s Program H and EngenderHealth’s Men as Partners Program both encourage groups of people to work together at the grass roots level to foster change. The curricula for these programs use a wide range of activities – games, role plays, and group discussions – to examine gender and sexuality and their impact on male and female sexual health and relationships, as well as to reduce violence against women.

Another example is a project carried out by CARE in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Calcutta, India. Initially designed to reduce the level of STIs and increase condom use among sex workers, the program expanded to empower sex workers by enabling them to control their own lives and solve their own problems, as both a goal in itself and as a way to prevent the spread of HIV. This program became transformative when it began organizing a network of people and agencies in India to proactively engage in political debate about the rights of sex workers.


The facilitator then asks participants where their own project(s) would fall on the continuum, allowing space for debate and discussion. Once they have reached a consensus, participants then mark where their project(s) fall on the continuum, writing examples on why they have come to that conclusion.

Some questions that the ISOFI Toolkit suggests in facilitating discussion include:

  • Whether the projects are reinforcing gender or sexuality stereotypes
  • Whether they are addressing gender-based violence (or actively screening for, preventing, or measuring violence)
  • Whether projects can go backwards along the continuum
  • What can be done to take projects to the next level on the continuum.

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