Making progress in human rights requires big risks and new allies
In these turbulent times, business as usual is no longer an option for women’s rights organizations, and we must branch into new methods of operating.
Women Win (All rights reserved)
Women Win works with companies, both from the sports industry and elsewhere, to unite the sports for development movement and the women’s rights movement.
Turbulence is an ongoing condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved. In this era of #metoo and #timesup, an American president who brags about sexual assault, and the rise of populism across the globe, the time is ripe for civil society to take risks. For the women’s movement, this means shifting beyond post-Beijing feminism to engage with different kinds of partners and alternative ways of working. We need to explore how other movements and activists have successfully fought for their rights and encourage diversity within our own movement, welcoming allies and seeking actors with shared interests.
As Edwin Rekosh and many others in this forum have argued, the old guard of civil society is losing its power and relevance, yet the need for effective advocacy and action to demand accountability, justice and rights around the world is more pressing than ever. To succeed, activists must balance creating the change we want with managing the current reality, starting with new models of funding and organization.
Women Win was founded on this philosophy that business as usual cannot achieve our “north star” for human rights. From the beginning, we sought to reach across traditional sector divides, leveraging shared interests to catalyze change for women and girls.
Women Win works with companies, both from the sports industry and elsewhere, to unite the sports for development movement and the women’s rights movement. We noticed early on that most of the sports for development organizations were not focusing on girls, and we wanted an organization that could use sports not only to empower girls and young women, but also address sensitive or taboo topics around women’s rights. We wanted to raise awareness about women’s rights in areas—both geographically and thematically—where women are marginalized or underrepresented. By launching partnerships from a point of shared interest, we were able to bridge movements and address a critical gap for women and girls.
We also agreed from the beginning that we would adopt a model of “successful failure”: if we were not failing every day, we were not doing our jobs. When we fail, we learn and we quickly adapt and try again. For example, in one of our programs we added an important mentoring component for young women as a response to requests from companies for more “employee engagement”. We “matched” several young women in the program to rather senior corporate women, had them meet during a leadership camp week—which worked well—and then gave them guidance to continue mentoring virtually. But between a failure to understand the young leaders’ lives (i.e., poverty, poor agency, lack of access to internet or mobile technology, etc.) as well as differences in time management, planning, and power dynamics, it was a disaster. In the end we lost credibility and both mentors and mentees were frustrated. We learned an important lesson about setting expectations, preparing better, and reconsidering what might seem like “great ideas”, and we did a lot of work to repair those relationships.
Nonetheless, we knew that if we were not brave enough to fail, we couldn’t possibly serve the girls we were trying to reach. It’s not only women’s organizations that need to embrace failure; the tendency across many civil society organizations is to uphold tried and true practices, in part due to funding mechanisms that demand evidence of success. In an era where civil society space and human rights are threatened worldwide, there are many sectors that are rising up, taking risks, and challenging the standard model of funding and organizing.
"For human rights advocates to refuse to work with multi-national corporations at all is a mistake, if not somewhat disingenuous."
However, this approach does not come without repercussions. Because Women Win has partnered with multi-national corporations, some critics have questioned our legitimacy as a women’s rights organization, and we have heard accusations of “selling out”. But we have seen new generations of young feminists not only reclaiming the title of “feminist”, but also doing it on their own terms. They manage complexity with ease, are not so deeply wedded to orthodoxy and often reject singularity—and that’s a good thing. When there is hardline orthodoxy in any movement, it’s inevitably bad for women. It often limits participation and appeal, and at its worst, it shuts women out—or it keeps women in if they are afraid to brave the wilderness. Working with faith-based organizations, for example, can be challenging for us when discussing reproductive rights and other often controversial issues in these communities. But we can—and must—find common ground. As activists for women’s rights, we can’t change the conversation if we refuse to engage. Moreover, if we ostracize each other, we risk missing out on a wealth of people, with resources and skills, who are ready and eager to join us.
Let’s see these times as an opportunity to reflect on how we can radically embrace diversity and inclusion. As Brené Brown says, “When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.”
Engaging in cross sectoral work effectively embraces that the process makes each of our sectors stronger, not weaker. For example, at Women Win our relationships with companies are based on three core principles: transparency, equity, and mutual benefit . These principles create a compass and roadmap for the organization. Moreover, by relying on equity—not equality, we recognize that while we can never be equal partners with multi-billion dollar companies, we offer something that they cannot do on their own, and vice versa. Recently, for example, Adidas approached us to partner on a campaign to highlight 50 female designers from all 50 American states. Our organization received the proceeds from the sales of the newly designed shoes, and 50 talented women designers received a high amount of support and publicity that is generally quite rare for women in the sporting industry. Arguably with only a monetary donation from Adidas, we would never have achieved the same reach and publicity, and in turn they had a strategic opportunity to highlight women designers.
While human rights advocates do not want to partner with companies that have a history of human rights abuses, to refuse to work with multi-national corporations at all is a mistake, if not somewhat disingenuous. Most, if not all, of the largest philanthropists in the world can trace their fortunes to corporations. Ultimately, we need to evolve the way we work and shift our assumptions about singular “appropriate” business models.
Activists should never compromise their missions, visions or ideals in any way—but by broadening the conversation and embracing inclusive approaches, we will be more effective. As activists we must widen our circles and reach across divides, and if there is no vocal dissent we must ask why. Why are we working only with people who share our exact same values? Otherwise, we will never get the results we are seeking, nor will we truly serve those who count on our courage, curiosity, and diversity.
With threats to women’s rights rising everywhere, now is the time to take those seemingly dangerous risks, to take a deep breath and step-up and take on a spirit of successful failures. Rights advocates must reach out and reach across to allies who share our interests—even if they don’t embrace all of our politics—and we must stop excluding those whose views are not completely aligned with ours. This will strengthen the movement. If not now, when?
Maria Bobenrieth is the executive director of Women Win and the chief operating officer at Win-Win Strategies.