Transformative leadership is not just a buzzword

Ines Smyth Gender, Participation and Leadership, Rights

Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a terrifying reality worldwide, women have organised together across environmental, anti-racist, labour and political movements to provide immediate local care and support to those affected. They have reimagined the deep, fundamental changes we need for a shared future that is more just, safe and kind. 

 These include formal strategy propositions like the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women’s Feminist Economic Recovery Planemergency funding initiatives to support the thousands of women migrant domestic workers ejected from their places of work, a compilation of global feminist responses to COVID-19, and powerful visions of post-COVID feminist alternatives.  

In this blog written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ines Smyth describes why transformative leadership for women’s rights demonstrated in the many examples like this matter and what this work means and requires in feminist development practice.

A tiresome trait in development is the existence, persistence, and ubiquity of buzzwords (and fuzzwords, as Andrea Cornwall described them in her 2007 article). ‘Transformative’ may well be one such word.   

We use the term “transformative” repeatedly in development practice without true recognition  of the fundamental and lasting challenge to structural inequalities and power relations that the term describes, and what it requires from our work.  

Yet the need to think and act in ways that make development initiatives truly transformative, is clear and present, given the fragility of progress, multiple threats from climate and other emergencies, and from political and social reversals. 

Five years ago, Oxfam launched a guide to Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights (TLWR). This urges the development sector to avoid a simplistic ‘headcount’ approach to women’s participation and leadership and aim for changes that are structural and irreversible. It is based on the long history of feminist thinking and working that seeks to transform the very meaning and practices of leadership.  

The guide has helped Oxfam programme staff and partner organisations to better understand the key concepts, principles and politics underpinning transformative leadership. But what does this look like in practice? Oxfam’s new companion resource to the Guide, Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights (TLWR): Lessons and Recommendations from Oxfam’s experiences – helps us respond to this question.  

This publication is grounded in concrete programme examples and contains rich descriptions and analyses of Oxfam’s experiences. These come from a diversity of projects and programmes implemented by women’s rights organizations, working with, and supported by, Oxfam in various regions and countries. 

We share lessons from practical experiences on transformative leadership for women’s rights. These stories mostly, but not exclusively, focus on women’s political participation. They recount the ways that women’s rights activists, organizations, and networks put feminist principles into practice.  

From challenging personal values, to building women’s civic and political skills and having the courage to put them into practice, to working collectively in innovative and non-hierarchical relationships, to influencing others for transformation at scale. Being nimble and adaptive to context and times, safeguarding one’s own wellbeing and the emotions of others, and being ready to stay the course.  

Oxfam originally aimed to use the evidence assembled in this publication to give the organization a practical framework to inspire and guide its own– and others’ work on transformative feminist leadership in mainstream development practice.  

This resource helped the organization to be clearer on the approaches and strategies that we have seen help to bring about fundamental change. This includes, the importance of individual work for collective purposes, supporting women’s rights organizations and networks, influencing informal and formal norms and policies, and the safe promotion of social accountability.  

There are relatively few documented experiences of mainstream development organisations and activists successfully putting the theory into practice. We hope these experiences can act as an inspiration and guide, well beyond Oxfam. They show that, despite the challenges, transformative leadership for women’s rights is not just a buzzword, but in many instances, is a hard-won reality.  

This Lessons and Recommendations document is part of Oxfam’s broader commitment to document our learning on TLWR approaches and strategies to deepen our practice. If you are interested in reading more on this topic you can access the following resources here:  

Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights in Africa: Learning from Oxfam’s work. In: Spotlight on Women’s Leadership in African Contexts, AGENDA NO118/33.1 2019

Transformative and Feminist Leadership for Women’s Rights. Oxfam America Research Backgrounder series. Wakefield, Shawna 2017. 

For a copy of Oxfam’s Global Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights Programme Framework (publication pending…) please email 

For a (loose but voluminous!) collection of TLWR programmatic videos, case studies and resources visit Rasing Her Voice.


Ines Smyth