Less money, more risk: the struggle for change in women’s rights

A longer version of this article was first published in Sur Journal’s 20th issue here, produced by Conectas.

Contemporary women’s rights organizations and movements work in a challenging context of fewer resources, more risks, increasing violence, inequalities and environmental uncertainty. Even so, many women’s rights activists and young women are demanding structural change, protecting their communities, opposing violence and holding the line on key achievements. But access to adequate financial resources continues to affect the sustainability of women’s rights organizations and their capacity to protect themselves.

Recent research by AWID demonstrates that huge transformation is possible when women’s organizations receive serious resources for an extended period of time. But as Wanja Muguongo argues, the funding and relationships between international and local groups must make sense. Several trends are currently shaping women’s rights work and influencing these relationships.

First, the existing economic paradigm of market-based development, privatization and growth often raises the costs of basic services. In addition, women’s unpaid work, both in domestic subsistence, reproduction and in unwaged household production, continues to be exploited.

Second, the complex process of developing and negotiating the new Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), which will culminate in September this year, has made evident the challenges women’s rights organizations and movements will face in the coming years to defend what has been achieved, avoid backlash and put new ideas and proposals on the agenda.

'Investing in women and girls' has been heralded as a new key strategy by diverse actors such as the World Bank,  Newsweek  and Walmart. 

Third, the private sector is becoming a central player in the development and philanthropic sectors, with an increase in funding from new private sector actors towards women and girls, often instrumentalizing their contributions to economic growth. “Investing in women and girls” has been heralded as a new key strategy by diverse actors such as the World Bank, Newsweek and Walmart—but this rhetoric has not necessarily translated into real resources for women’s rights.

AWID’s recent research into 170 different partnership initiatives focused on women and girls, found that 143 of them collectively committed USD 14.6 billion dollars. Out of these 170, 27% supporting women and girls said they engaged women’s organizations as “partners”, but only 9% directly funded them. This research illustrates a complex panorama of new actors and new resources for women and girls that defies simplistic categorizations and brings with it new opportunities and challenges.

Fourth, religious fundamentalist movements are continuing to gain power. Increasing violence by state and non-state actors towards the general population, and particularly against social movements and activists, undermines and seriously challenges democracy, peace and human rights. In many regions, this is directly linked to the growing influence of fundamentalism with arguments based on religion (as well as culture, tradition and nationalism) used to violate and deny the rights of women, LGBTQI people, and religious, ethnic and cultural minorities. Fundamentalists and their supporters have also been successfully advancing arguments based on cultural relativism in multilateral processes, most recently at the 59th UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2015.

And finally, violence against women human rights defenders (WHRDs) continues to grow. This increase in the number and severity of attacks on WHRDs by both state and non-state actors has serious impacts on the sustainability of women’s rights movements. In recent years, important advances have recognized WHRDs and the violence they face because of their role in defending women’s rights, the environment and their communities.

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim (All rights reserved)

Tunisian women protest the conviction of activists from the rights group FEMEN. Women's rights advocates face growing risks when disseminating their message.

Against this backdrop of fewer resources and more risks, women’s organizing is still not coming together in the most strategic ways. A critical step that international organizations must make is strengthening and supporting local women’s movements so that they can be more effective in their work and struggles at all of these different levels.  AWID does this in different ways. It brings together organizations and activists from different social movements and different levels of organizing (local-global). AWID especially emphasizes the importance of exploring new ways of working together, bridging the divides of our issues, sectors, constituencies and movements. One example of this is the next AWID Forum on Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice which will take place from 5 to 8 May 2016 in Brazil.

Another critical issue in women’s rights organizing is the facilitation of constructive spaces for diverse women’s rights organizations and other CSOs to strengthen connections and bring together groups that have not yet found common ground. For example, through our Young Feminist Activist (YFA) program, AWID connects our young feminist members with other young women from around the world, raising awareness of their different forms of organizing, and facilitating meaningful engagement with key international processes and events.

There are of course challenges associated with bringing together diverse and sometimes fragmented groups in collaborative processes. Beyond the fact that diverse groups come with diverse ideas, there are challenges in facilitating strong co-ownership among partners in particular due to differences in positioning and resources across feminist and other civil society organizations. We put constant care and attention to these potential tensions and to continuous learning and improvement around how we build collective processes that both advance our objectives and strengthen our movements.

In addition, we have found that the complexity of the context and the urgency of overcoming divisive opinions and goals among social movements requires us to find where identities, themes and geographies can intersect and agree. Learning more about how to work in this way will benefit any similar collaborative relationships.

It is also important for women’s rights advocates to engage in policy advocacy by collaboratively developing positions with allies. We believe that women’s rights organizations must have a stronger knowledge of and voice in development policy-making to ensure that it is responsive to their needs, rights and realities and that resources being allocated in the name of women and girls are effectively reaching those groups.

A collaborative approach with our members and broader constituency is at the heart of our work and reflects our belief in the power of movements to create momentum for change. Deep, sustainable change for women’s rights requires women’s collective action and power. To that end, supporting and strengthening diverse women’s rights movements is essential.