Why support women’s rights organisations?

Emily Esplen | Mar 30, 2013

“In a patriarchal society, it is extremely difficult for women to be heard, so it is important that women come together. Unless they act together, no-one is going to hear them. They find security and strength in each other’s experiences.”

Bandana Rana, Director of Saathi, one of Womankind’s partners in Nepal

History has shown that women’s rights organisations and movements are a vital catalyst for gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights (1). Over and over again, in all different contexts, women have organised to raise their concerns and achieve change.

Women’s rights organisations wield broad influence – from grassroots organising to advocacy and campaigning – and are uniquely placed to mobilise and empower women to come together to know and claim their rights. They often have a solid base in the daily realities of women’s and girls’ lives, and the legitimacy to represent women’s concerns and priorities. They are a crucial source of knowledge and innovation on women’s rights and have pioneered effective models for advancing women’s rights – such as women’s police stations and family courts, which have been widely adopted. Their very existence also serves to affirm women’s leadership and participation.

Womankind’s new briefing – Leaders for change: Why support women's rights organisations? – gives examples of the essential roles that women’s rights organisations are playing in advancing women’s rights around the world, based on existing research and the learning of Womankind’s partners. It makes the case for increasing funding to southern women’s rights organisations and explores promising approaches to achieve this.

More money for women and girls – but it isn’t reaching women’s rights organisations

Recent years have seen increasing attention to women and girls from development actors. Powerful institutions such as the World Bank have championed women as ‘agents of change’. Private foundations such as the Gates Foundation and Nike Foundation, donor agencies including Norway, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, and large international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), have all expanded their focus on women and girls (2).

This spotlight has acted as an impetus to expand funding commitments on gender equality and women’s rights. However, women’s rights organisations are often unable to tap into these new funding opportunities.

For example, just 1.3% of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) funds dedicated to gender equality in the 2010 budget went to women’s rights organisations and women’s ministries (3).

A global survey of 1119 women’s organisations from over 140 countries in 2011 found that only one-tenth of the organisations received funding from bilateral donors, national governments and INGOs (4). Only 6.9% received funding from UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality, and only 3% from corporate funds.

So while there is more money out there for women and girls, it is not reaching women’s rights organisations.

Struggling for survival

Research by a range of organisations – including the global women’s rights network AWID, the Royal Tropical Institute and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme (5) – has highlighted the precarious financial position that many women’s rights organisations find themselves in as a result of these funding trends. Womankind’s partners have raised particular concerns about increasing competition for in-country funding between local NGOs and INGOs. They describe how INGOs often access funds and then “sub-contract” local organisations to deliver the work – treating them as contractors rather than change-makers and innovators.

“Local NGOs find it difficult to compete with better equipped and resourced INGOs for profile and networking opportunities with donors…and therefore funds. They often do not know how to ‘play the game’ as well.”

– Womankind partner from Zambia

In the face of fragmented, short-term funding and small amounts of money, women’s rights organisations are often unable to scale up innovative models and approaches and build their organisational and operational capacity for the longer-term.

What changes are needed?

Womankind is advocating for donor agencies to more generously resource women’s rights organisations – recognising the enormous value of the roles they play in advancing gender women’s rights. In particular, we are calling for:

  • Long-term core funding to enable women’s rights organisations to build up their capacity, protect themselves from external risks and set independent agendas
  • Mechanisms to ensure funding reaches grassroots women’s organisations; for example through scaling up funding to women’s funds that have links with grassroots civil society
  • Increasing the accessibility of funding to women’s rights organisations through simplifying grants application, monitoring and reporting processes.

By increasing support to women’s rights organisations, donors are able to support existing local agendas for women’s rights rather than setting agendas from the outside that don’t necessarily reflect the priorities of women themselves.

Women”s rights organisations have the ability to tackle root causes of inequality and drive a long-term shift in the status quo – an intensely political project that needs to be locally driven.

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