Creative persistence: women’s funds responses to the backlash against feminism
Widespread backlash against progressive values and mounting legal restrictions have led women’s activists and funds to respond creatively.
This month, Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds will host the 10th Biennial meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the Network’s 37 full member women’s funds, funding partners, and allies will come together. The Biennial, dedicated to the theme of “Building Resistance and Resilience”, is a unique opportunity for women’s funds and allies to engage in critical reflection and make new commitments that go beyond individual organizations and communities.
The rise of right wing political parties, widespread backlash against progressive values and mounting financial and legal restrictions on social justice and feminist movements are a few of the increasing threats to the human rights of women’s, girls’ and trans* persons and their communities. As a result, funders of these social movements are analyzing why this trend is happening and what can be done.
In many ways, the current wave of backlash is simply the latest manifestation of a global system based in inequality and injustice, and is a result of growing challenges to that status quo. In seeking to transform the world from one based in (white) male dominance and exploitation, women’s rights organizations and funders have always been in direct opposition to those with a vested interest in maintaining power, and have a long history of encountering backlash.
As the hub of international women’s funds, Prospera is uniquely positioned to observe trends from within the women’s funding community. From this standpoint, we have witnessed women’s funds emerging from moments of “crisis”—including the forced closure of women’s funding organizations and increasingly restrictive foreign funding laws—as movement builders, influencers, and funders.
Women’s funds are successfully resisting and persisting in a number of creative ways. Some of these include building alliances across different communities, playing a bridging role between local communities and the broader funding community, and placing greater emphasis on self-care at the individual and organizational levels.
Building alliances across traditional community divides. The Ecumenical Women’s Initiative (EWI)—a regional, secular women’s fund based in Croatia—has worked for over a decade in a post-war context in which rising religious fundamentalisms, nationalism and xenophobia are threatening to shatter peace and reconciliation efforts. These shifts, coupled with a decrease in funding for grassroots organizations, especially women-led groups, growing civil apathy, and increasing levels of violence against women led EWI to focus on building solidarity.
Under the mantra “go to the source of the problem,” EWI leveraged its network of feminist activists and scholars to identify allies within patriarchal religious institutions.
Under the mantra “go to the source of the problem”, EWI leveraged its network of feminist activists and scholars to identify allies within patriarchal religious institutions: the Catholic Church, Orthodox, and Islamic communities. EWI supports feminist scholars with grants within each of these institutions to conduct research on strategic topics, and provides a safe space to amplify their voices, which are often silenced by the institutions to which they belong. EWI is able to connect with women in each of these institutions by approaching them as peers, thus uncovering common struggles and needs. The resulting research and ideas are then incorporated into seminars and projects with grassroots women from diverse religious and secular backgrounds, as a tool to inform, empower and mobilize. In this way, EWI supports changing attitudes, promotes social responsibility and a commitment to peaceful interreligious coexistence. For example, one participant received support from EWI to research and produce a teaching manual on Muslim Religious Education to be used in schools in Sarajevo to help counter rising violence and radicalization among youth. The manual was used in 91 schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and eventually presented to the German government as an effective strategy to work in multi-faith communities. More broadly, providing the space, tools, time to unpack and address complex identities and emotions, EWI is sparking a movement of resistance based in trust and a collective sense of agency.
Supporting gender-based research and analysis to strengthen resistance. Historically, women’s funds have provided core, flexible support for activists and organizations on the front lines of driving social change. Yet, even as more and more funders seek to proactively address closing space, these efforts lack a gendered analysis. If funders do not understand how the rising backlash against civil society and progressive values is affecting different groups, funding strategies can perpetuate and even harm, rather than strengthen, resistance work. To address this knowledge gap, Urgent Action Fund and Mama Cash commissioned research on the gendered aspects of closing space, culminating in a report that works as a tool, resource, and testimony. This type of evidence-based analysis helps to develop funding and interventions that are strategically designed to address gendered issues.
In addition, research shows that foundations are most influenced by their peers. Women’s funds have deep connections and expertise of the communities they support, and this bridging role is critical to bringing the insights and experiences of women, girls and trans* persons to a broader funder community. The Mexican women’s fund Semillas, for example, organizes annual meetings of grantee partners to share their work and discuss major developments and priorities. The results of these discussions are shared across the Semillas community, and are used to design more targeted meetings between donors and grantee groups, to learn, exchange and strengthen feminist philanthropy.
Fostering resilience within individuals and organizations. In many parts of the world, women’s rights activists face violent physical and emotional threats. Even for those removed from immediate danger, anxiety about negative trends and overwhelming pressure to counter them often means the “self” is neglected in the name of the collective resistance. Yet self-care is an act of political resistance, and to foster resilience, our work must be grounded in wellbeing, compassion, and love.
Many women’s funds have launched initiatives to better support grantee partners in building resilience, and to inspire other funders to recognize, value and support self-care. In particular, Urgent Action Fund Latin America has developed a core program around “Sustainable Activism”, dedicated to build grantee partners capacities on protection and wellbeing, with the goal of creating better conditions and strategies for exercising activism. HER Fund, based in Hong Kong, recently launched the HER Hub, a center and curriculum to train, educate, and support women and girl leaders to build the necessary skills and networks they need to resist burnout, as well as support them to create personal balance, focus and resilience to strengthen their organizations and increase their impact for marginalized women and girls in Hong Kong. In addition, FRIDA the Young Feminist Fund has prioritized self-care, launching a Storm of Solidarity campaign in early September. FRIDA used social media to build momentum and share stories, tools and reflections. Rather than offering pre-scripted strategies, the campaign supported participants to develop awareness of self-care needs and find their own ways to address them.
Across social justice communities, resistance efforts will be most effective if they are understood as part of building, energizing and resourcing a long-term struggle, rather than a moment demanding response. Yet recognizing that the current backlash is part of an ongoing struggle is not to dismiss the gravity of what we are facing. The current situation is precarious—recent political shifts in different countries, along with natural disasters related to climate change, could unravel hard won gains and hold back progress for the rights of women, girls and trans* people for years to come. The moment calls for deep introspection, strategizing and new forms of collective action—the ability to do this effectively is perhaps the greatest resistance and resilience strategy.
Augusta Hagen-Dillon is a Program Officer at Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds.