Financing for women’s organizations: The billion dollar question

Financing for women’s organizations: The billion dollar question

December 4, 2020 by Jenaina Irani

Between 2017-2019, over $1 billion US dollars was pledged by governments and other donors in support of gender equality commitments. This is more than ever before! However, a closer look at the figures reveals that only 1% of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) gender equality-focused funding in 2016-17 went directly to women-led organizations. Meanwhile, the proportion of bilateral aid to conflict-affected countries focused on gender equality as the primary objective has remained at only 5% since 2010, and only 0.2% of this goes directly to women’s organizations! To advance gender equality in a way that is meaningful, sustainable and tailored to specific local needs, donors must ensure that their funding is available to women-led organizations, including women peacebuilders. Failing to do so, donors contravene the very principle of inclusion and equality they seek to promote.  

COVID-19 has made the need for more reliable, sustainable and accessible funding for gender equality even more pressing. Women are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. The pandemic has exacerbated already dire conditions for women and girls in conflict-affected settings. The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) consultations with national and local women peacebuilders in Colombia have shown that women’s rights organizations are facing funding cuts and suspension of contracts, as donor funds are redirected to address the health and humanitarian impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) survey of 78 of its civil society partners found that 29% believed their organization’s existence was at risk due to the pandemic. Despite the fact that women around the world are at the frontlines of addressing COVID-19 impacts in their communities, the funds dedicated to responding to the pandemic often remain unavailable to them. This because most COVID-19 responses are not gender-responsive, and women are excluded from decision-making about them.

Transformative and normative change necessary to challenge gender inequalities requires meaningful participation of women and women-led organizations. A 2014 comparative study between EU found that when members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were receptive to, and actively engaged with feminist groups and civil society organizations (CSO’s), they were successful in enacting structural changes, necessary for transforming unequal gender relations. The authors attribute this to a number of reasons including that the SADC framed gender equality as a goal in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. More so, women peacebuilders from conflict-affected countries contribute to sustaining peace by capacity building and addressing root causes of conflict through community mediation and development work. For example, women’s civil society in Syria contributed to the formation of committees across the country that work on reducing conflicts and building community stability.

They are also effective advocates for normative changes in their countries. The effectiveness of women’s organizations derives from the key role they play in generating awareness among local communities, and challenging gender stereotypes. Researchers analyzed data across 50 African nations between 1989 and 2014 and found that when local women and organizations form coalitions to pressure governments, they adopt gender-sensitive quotas in a comparatively effective and timely manner. The evidence for the cost-effectiveness of investing in women-led and feminist organizations is compelling. If the investment made in gender equality does not benefit local organizations and women peacebuilders, the structural change it sets out to achieve will remain elusive.

Women’s organizations also drive change by organizing and mobilizing into women’s rights and feminist movements-which have been found to be key drivers of change. A study spanning 40 years, across 70 countries found that autonomous feminist movements were the most important consistent factor in driving policy change- more than left-wing leadership, numbers of women legislators, and even national wealth. However, despite the evidence on their effectiveness, women’s movements and coordination mechanisms are notoriously underfunded. GNWP consultations in Uganda and Colombia reveal that funding for coordination and networks-building among women’s organizations, including those working on WPS, remain extremely limited.

None of the advances in women’s rights over the last century could have been possible without the existence of independent, women-led organizations and movements that begun at the grassroots level and applied pressure upward. Grassroots women’s organizations need funding, and they need it to be flexible, responsive, and sustainable in the long term. The benefits of directly funding organizations that work toward gender equality are multi-fold, and provide a clear path to where development assistance and aid should go. There’s your billion dollar answer!

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