Invest in women, now!
By Suneeta Dhar
Suneeta Dhar is a feminist activist, trainer and facilitator of change processes. She is active in the women’s movement and has supported several grassroots and leadership development initiatives on women’s rights thereby building bridges and alliances across diverse sectors. Suneeta is a co-founder of the South Asia Women Foundation – India.
Over the last few decades, work on women’s rights and movement building has received global visibility and attention, though it has not been matched with sustained funding. The Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) held in Beijing, considered to be one of the major achievements of the global and local women’s movements generated a broad-based public support for women’s equality. Women from the global South played a critical role in framing and advancing their concerns and advocated for resources.
However, 25 years down the line, we learn that no country has achieved gender equality in its truest sense. Nor is any country set to achieve it by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Gender Index, by Equal Measures 2030, notes that 2.8 billion women and girls currently live in countries that are not doing enough to improve women’s lives. And more than half of the countries have scored poorly on efforts to achieve the SDG 5 – a standalone goal to end gender inequality and empower women, that was a result of major global organising by women’s groups.
The world today is replete with structural inequalities, exclusion, prejudice and gender discrimination, where women and girls in their full diversity are struggling to keep their lives, livelihoods and dignity going in the midst of reversals taking place due to the fall out of the pandemic.
It is important to mention at the outset, that an intersectional lens is key to ensure the inclusivity of diverse women – lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer (LBT+); women of colour; women from diverse social and economic backgrounds, religions and families; women with a range of physical abilities; and gender non-conforming people; women from Dalit, Adivasi, urban and rural poor communities. While women’s organisations have been at the vanguard of change, it is well-known that over the last many decades they have found it increasingly difficult to get sustained institutional support, and deal with major pushbacks in challenging patriarchies, hetero-normativity, structural violence and notions of citizenship.
Close to a decade ago, South Asia Women’s Fund, now re-named – Women’s Fund Asia (WFA), noted in a study (2011-12) , that work around women’s human rights has been under-resourced, while programmatic, financial ‘commitments’ for gender equality and main-streaming were increasing. The report highlighted the instrumentalist approach to gender main-streaming, where gender is merely an `add-on’ to programmes and budgetary planning processes, rather than being an approach that supports the transforming of power relations.
In 2008, a study by Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on ‘Where is the funding for women’s rights’ highlighted that funding patterns for most women’s organisations was rather small, with two-thirds of the surveyed organisations having annual budgets of less than USD 50,000. The most significant change in the funding landscape since 1995, has been the overall increase in the number of women’s organisations receiving money from women’s funds.
Well known global activist Srilata Batliwala rooted for funds for women’s rights work early on, writing about the transformative work of women’s movements – in challenging the culture of silence around rape and violence, unpacking gender discrimination through research studies and gender-specific data, advancing laws, reforms and affirmative actions, and setting up new institutional arrangements to advance equality. Françoise Girard too advocates strongly for long-term support to women’s rights organisations that could effectively counter systemic patriarchal oppression, given their long time work on raising consciousness, building coalitions, and advocacy.
It is interesting to note here that data from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (2016-17) indicated that an average of USD 44.8 billion per year was granted (corresponding to 38% of their bilateral allocable aid) towards gender equality and women’s equality – higher than ever before. However, support to programmes specifically dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment as their principal objective (as opposed to being one of several objectives) remained consistently low.
It is in this regard that one needs to focus on Feminist Philanthropy. The question often asked is feminist philanthropy different from merely funding women’s projects? Many donors and philanthropies support women’s programmes on the ground. What does it take to really change the lives of women and girls?
Tulika Srivastava, Executive Director, WFA in her piece, “Revolutionising Philanthropy across Asia and the Pacific”, writes:
“Feminism is about disrupting power, and feminist philanthropy is about challenging and disrupting the power of resources and the power dynamics between those who give the resources for gender justice and those who claim them”.
Ise Bosch and Ndana Bofu-Tawamba noted that:
“Feminist philanthropy must be seen as a political act, an act that works to transform notions of power, privilege and resources.”
Ms. Murray, Founder, Global Fund for Women observed that:
‘It is the “how?” that has the power to transform systems, structures, attitudes and behaviours of both the people who give and their recipients, not the “how much?”.’
A women’s fund in Nicaragua affirms:
“It is an act of solidarity and mutual empowerment, in which the solutions to the problems that women face are seen as a matter of mutual responsibility.”
In a graphic document of WFA and partners, one statement by a participant stands out:
“Acknowledging the power dynamics and patriarchal values present within the movement, and consistently challenging these structures, while being accountable to each other.”
South Asia Women Foundation, India (SAWF-IN) believes that:
“The philanthropic landscape of giving, particularly for women and trans* people-led initiatives, should be expanded to support women’s leadership and organisational development”.
Feminist philanthropy is about transforming the political and the personal. Philanthropy needs to be informed by an intersectional power analysis and to support communities of diverse women to co-create and build movements for gender justice, equality and peace.
Women’s Funds have played a critical role. They have been the first to reach out to the most marginalised to support collective formation, rights based services and movement building. They have supported self-led collectives, who have the capacity, resources and political insights to transform their lived realities. Resources in the hands of such collectives and groups makes the difference. 1
And today, we witness the impacts of the pandemic in more ways than one. It involves multiple crises – humanitarian, health, socio-economic – that have highlighted the deep fault-lines and the structural nature of inequalities in society. Ordinary working people, women, girls, trans and non-gender conforming persons from the most marginalised communities are carrying the burden of the pandemic. Lives and livelihoods have been lost, as hunger deepens, household debts increase, displacements and unsafe migration takes place and there is no access to essential life services. Women have seen an intensification of sexual abuse, intimate partner violence and other forms of violence. Unpaid care work is taking a huge toll on the time and health needs of women and girls.
In a rapid study undertaken by WFA recently with their partners on the impacts of Covid-19, it was found that most groups were on the edge with no possibility of maintaining physical distancing given the dense neighbourhoods they live in. Among the findings was the lack of food security of indigenous communities who are unable to sell their produce; challenges in accessing social security and government welfare schemes due to lack of documentation and recognition, especially for sex workers; garment workers stuck in their cramped housing due to the lockdown with no relief measures; and so on. However, many collectives demonstrated their agency and power of organising amid the emergency measures in place: collecting funds; preparing food packages; campaigning online; gathering data to support their advocacy; providing services online to members and others 2.
Several feminist economists have highlighted the failures of the neo-liberal globalised economy in delivering basic needs, access to food security, public healthcare, social protection, social rights and human dignity.
There has also been a re-purposing of grants, and rightly so, for relief, given huge gaps in the response of the state system and no support to those on the margins. A group of philanthropic funders, committed to feminist funding principles, are leading the way in providing flexible funds for their grantees during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been sustained and innovative responses by feminists, networks and alliances to highlight specific issues and concerns, to seek accountability from the state and to find ways of supporting and building solidarity. 3
Lina Abirafeh reflects on: “How COVID-19 has demanded a concerted global response, not only to containing the virus but in protecting the most vulnerable and in ensuring that women’s safety and women’s rights are at the heart of the response.”
Gagan Sethi, Board Member, SAWF-IN, urges the need to provide substantive support to women migrant labourers, most affected by the pandemic, to secure their rights to safe and decent work, forming their independent platforms and unions and accessing justice.
A Statement of Feminists and Women’s Rights Organisations from the Global South and from marginalised communities in the Global North, notes:
“The need for increased resourcing for non-governmental organisations that respond to domestic violence and provide assistance — including shelter, counselling, and legal aid to survivors”.
We are aware that the challenges are enormous. We know that resources for community based groups of women, trans, and non-gender conforming persons, and others for organising, re-building and recovery work are just not accessible.
Priya Paul, well known entrepreneur, philanthropist and Co-Founder South Asia Women Fund – India, urges Foundations and Donors to invest in women’s human rights, and keep it as a high priority, as funding flows are insignificant. Only 1% of all gender-focused aid (governments) have been awarded to women’s organisations.
Now is the time to invest in feminist groups. Invest in advancing rights of women workers. Invest in organising. Invest in fellowships. Invest in ending violence, patriarchy and inequalities. More importantly invest in building new freedoms and the right to live with dignity for all girls and women.
Your voice, your time, your commitment matter.
- Read more about feminist funding : https://www.womensfundasia.org/ and https://www.prospera-inwf.org/#!/-home/.
- Internal document: WFA, 2020.
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