A transformative strategy: the true value of investing in women’s rights

What happened to the largest pot of money ever made available for advancing gender equality and human rights? Srilatha Batliwala reports on the results of AWID's aggregate analysis of the impact of the MDG 3 Fund.

This is the second part of the article by Srilatha Batliwala, Beyond individual stories: women have moved mountains.

The opportunity afforded by the MDG3 Fund – the largest pool of money ever made available for advancing gender equality and women’s rights – was the catalyst for AWID‘s development of a new methodology to analyse the impact and achievements of the organizations supported through the Fund not individually, but collectively, in a four year period.  33 out of the 45 organizations that received the Fund’s support participated in our aggregate analysis survey, including 24 organizations specifically committed to promoting women’s rights.  Let us begin by looking at the big mountains that moved – the extraordinary reach and coverage achieved by the organizations surveyed. A number of these achievements were directly connected to reducing or eradicating violence against women in all forms, the key theme of the  57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women which meets next month in New York.

Fund-supported interventions reached 164 countries in 15 regions of the world.  In these diverse locations, nearly 225 million people were reached with a new awareness of women’s rights, including strong messages about the roots of gender-based violence, and that advancing gender equality and women’s right to safety and security is everyone’s responsibility. 

At the level of state institutions, local governments in 38 cities / towns / provinces in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the MENA region were influenced and newly capacitated to re-assess, strengthen, and improve their gender equality policies and programmes, including their response to violence against women. National governments in 46 countries were similarly influenced, including 36 countries that were persuaded to ratify and adopt the newly approved ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Work, adopted in 2011 as a result of the "last mile" lobbying by grantees like WIEGO and FCAM.  And the latter is only one of the thirteen different international norms,  instruments and institutions that were influenced to better advance women’s rights.  Just Associates’ engaged the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Special Rapporteur on VAW and the CEDAW Committee to raise visibility of and push for more effective international action on the deteriorating situation of women human rights defenders.  Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice influenced the International Court of Criminal Justice to bring gender-based charges in 11 out of the 15 cases it brought to trial.  AWID helped influence the analysis and approach of key international processes like the OECD DAC aid effectiveness dialogue, the Accra Agenda for Action, the Busan Joint Action Plan on Gender Equality and Development, and creating gendered indicators for monitoring the Accra Action Agenda, by ensuring the presence of feminist economists and women’s rights organizations in the discussions. 

A key contributing factor to the extraordinary range of achievements of Fund recipients was that they were allowed to develop and apply a wide range of diverse strategies, rather than being straightjacketed into a set of rigid, donor-promoted approaches. The result was a rich mix of strategies, most often applied in various combinations.  In the context of the work on violence against women, these ranged from the mass-media campaigns and community mobilisations catalysed by Breakthrough in India and Puntos de Encuentro in Central America to the psycho-social recovery and support for legal redress advanced by Casa de la Mujer in Bolivia, CREA’s pathbreaking research on violence against lesbian, disabled and sex worker women in South Asia, MIFUMI’s work with both survivors and duty bearers to improve just outcomes in Uganda, Just Associates’ alliance-building strategies to increase the safety of women human rights defenders in Central America, the WiLDAF network’s training of paralegals and creation of community reconciliation committees to reduce domestic violence in Africa… the list is lengthy and inspiring. 

The result of the MDG3 Fund’s “let a hundred flowers bloom” approach was the emergence of a wide array of new tools, manuals, surveys, knowledge products and other innovations – 43 by our count - for empowering women, strengthening state programmes, generating new data and information, and exposing new forms of gender-based violence.  To cite just one example: the International Association of Women Judges created a new concept called “sextortion” to describe the use of sexual coercion especially by public officials, and developed a tool to help women’s groups to recognize and combat this practice and bring perpetrators to book.

What is most revealing – and relevant to the upcoming session of the CSW - is the nuanced and multi-faceted strategies used to work on gender-based violence. 28 out of the 33 respondents worked on gender-based violence, and each linked awareness building, legal aid, healing support, protection of women activisits, international advocacy, access to livelihoods and productive resources, and research, in different combinations. Organisations reported a complex mix of strategies that demonstrated an understanding of how violence against women is linked not only to internalized beliefs and attitudes, but public policies and services, and not only to women’s disempowerment in the private domain but their economic marginalization and the importance of their presence, voice and participation in the public sphere. 

Our survey shows that when they are well resourced, women’s organizations and NGOs with a commitment to gender equality can go to scale, greatly increase their impact and expand their outreach, through more creative and path-breaking tools and strategies.  97% of our respondents were able to reach a larger number of women and women’s organizations than in their past work, 88% increased their geographic coverage, and 91% were able to launch a range of new programs and strategies. This testifies to how lack of adequate resources has been one of the key factors preventing women’s organisations from having a greater impact. The creation of strong, ground-level or constituency-based movements that expanded women’s collective power and leadership, and the building of strategic alliances with other pro-women forces, were vital to sustaining transformations in gender power over time.. 

Successfully fighting discriminatory and regressive laws and policies, and backlash that would have rolled back past gains, was a key achievement reported by 64% of respondents. Examples include the attempt to introduce strict Shari’a law in Iraq, the attempt to criminalize homosexuality in many African countries, and policy shifts such as the attempt, in Guatemala, to penalize emergency contraceptive pills, that would have seriously jeapordized the gains of the past many decades. But perhaps the most significant – and poignant - achievement of all was the many organizations who reported that merely surviving and continuing their work under very difficult and challenging circumstances was a major achievement.

Why these achievements matter

To assess the true value of these achievements requires an understanding of some of the key lessons learnt by women’s movements over the past several decades.  On the question of scale and coverage, we have realized that small, localized and isolated efforts that cannot be scaled up to mobilize a larger number of women and their communities against gender discrimination, are not sustainable: we cannot rest content with small islands of change in a sea of oppressive patriarchal cultures.  We also know that going to scale by merely converting millions of women into project “beneficiaries” rather than agents of change, is also not a transformative strategy – so conscious and systematic movement building, by empowering women to become conscious actors in a social change process, is vital.  Even these efforts can be futile without corresponding enabling conditions on the part of the governance and justice systems, the state and its various institutions must do their part as duty bearers, so advocacy for legal and policy reform is critical.  And in the face of the growing worldwide backlash against women, especially women fighting for their rights, holding on to past gains and pushing back regressive laws and policies is essential. 

Given all this, simply refusing to give up under increasingly tough conditions – continuing to work in the face of declining resources, increasing violence against women human rights defenders, and the multiple forces aligned against gender equality and women’s rights – is a huge victory in and of itself.  So the achievements of the organizations that received the MDG3 Fund, and indeed, of the MDG3 Fund as a whole, must be placed against this backdrop, and celebrated accordingly.  We salute the organizations, activists, advocates, and millions of women who were part of this great experiment.  And we wonder: if 33 organizations with a mere 82 million euros could do so much in just four years, what would happen with a 100 million, 500 million, or a billion?   Will the world’s governments and philanthropists have the courage and the vision to truly invest in women's rights?

Read the full AWID report Women Moving Mountains

About the author

Srilatha Batliwala is the India-based Scholar Associate for AWID (Association for Women's Rights in Development).

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