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Beyond individual stories: women have moved mountains

Among all the social movements of the past century, the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality has been the most transformative in terms of the deep tectonic shifts it has created in the social terrain, yet skepticism about the value of funding women's rights work persists

Women along a long shopping street with signs and banners Defending our Human Rights March: Istanbul Turkey, April 2012. Photo: Marie Fe Alpizar

Women’s movements, and especially feminist women’s movements, through both their scholars and activists, have spearheaded some of the most fundamental shifts in our way of understanding our societies and the nature of social injustice.  They have excavated the breadth and depth of gender discrimination – till then either invisible or considered “normal” - in virtually every society in the world, especially gender-based violence in all its forms. Till late in the last century, for instance, violence against women in its multiple forms – whether wife-beating, rape, dowry-burning or female genital cutting – was calmly accepted, viewed either as private misfortunes, or as feudal cultural practices, rather than as evidence of the unacceptable oppression and denial of the human rights of one half of the human race.  Today, every society is forced to address these, even if some misogynistic regimes choose to justify them through cultural relativist  arguments.

Feminists have raised the voice and visibility of women’s perspectives on issues as disparate as the environment, the economy, and peace.  Until DAWN’s pathbreaking analysis in 1987, for instance, there was little awareness that economic policies impacted men and women differently, even among the poorest households, or that Third World feminists perspectives on economic equality were radically different from that of feminists from the North.  And there would be no Human Development Index – much less a Gender-Related Development Index – without the voice of women demanding visibility for the gender discrimination that prevails in virtually every state and society.  Feminist activism pushed forward formal equality through relentless research and advocacy for constitutional, legal and policy reform – few of us realize that until the Eighties, gender-disaggregated data was not available in most national statistical systems.  And they challenged and transformed international and national norm structures (like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights) that were hitherto androcentric – it was only in the Nineties, for example, that feminists worldwide mobilized to challenged the dominant framing of human rights, including the definition of rights violations like torture, and compelled the recognition of the unique range of atrocities faced by women, in both war and peace, with the rallying cry “women’s rights are human rights”.  And the notion of universal adult franchise would not exist but for feminist mobilizations that began very early in the last century…

Women’s organizations have mobilized and empowered millions of women in their households and communities, and built strong movements – by the end of the last century, it was virtually impossible to find a corner of the world that did not have a women’s movement of some kind, and in most, strong grassroots women’s movements with an impressive “mass base”.  Many of these movements moved across borders to become powerful transnational movements – of informal sector women workers, or poor grassroots women, or indigenous women, or women living in conflict areas and working for peace. 

Feminists created new concepts and discourse that transformed even the academic mainstream – today, we use the terms “gender” or “gender analysis” with little recognition of the fact that it was feminists who appropriated these terms from other disciplines, recast them, and provided us with new tools of social analysis that did not exist before. By doing so, they have permanently altered the prism through which we view social reality and our ideas of social justice.  This is why there is universal outrage when a Malala Yousufzai is shot for trying to go to school, or a young para-medical student is gang raped on a Delhi bus.  It is because our entire sense of justice and fairness has been raised up to a new standard. 

The collective impact of women’s movements and organizations has thus cut across theory and practice, public policy and programmes, and our social institutions and ways of thinking, from the local to the global level. No other movement has had such sweeping and deep impact on our lives, even if some of us were dragged, kicking and screaming, into its vortex.  And if you still don’t believe it, just look at the intensifying and often violent backlash against women’s rights and gender equality, and the reversal of past gains, almost everywhere – from the assault on women’s reproductive rights in the United States, to the banning of girls schools by the Taliban. 

Is it not then astounding that despite this incredible impact, feminists are held in almost universal contempt, and women’s rights organizations and the movements they work with have had to contend with declining financial support, a lack of widespread public acknowledgement, and growing challenges to their credibility?  Worse, many components of the very strategies that enabled this impact have been dismantled, isolated, and implemented piecemeal, divested of their transformative politics - like micro-credit, quotas for women in politics, and legal aid for women in distress – because these are considered to show faster, concrete results, though they do not necessarily address the deeper roots of gender discrimination and may even aggravate existing gender biases.  How has this happened?  Why are feminists in general, and women’s rights organizations in particular, on the back foot, struggling to prove that they still matter – that their work is far from done, and that while gender equality is everyone’s responsibility, it is they who must still lead the struggle?

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the achievements of women’s movements have never really been analyzed and projected in this way - at an aggregate level, and  over the long-term.  This is not for lack of concrete evidence.  Donors, for one, have increasingly demanded the tracking of “concrete results”, but they have tended to ask for evidence of impact at an individual organization or project level.  But despite having decades of impact data in their archives, few donors have seen the need to analyze this information to create a larger historic picture of what their grantees have achieved collectively, especially in terms of the specific manifestations of gender discrimination they have prioritized and funded over the years.  Both private foundations and bilateral and multilateral donors, for instance, have funded work on women’s economic empowerment, health and reproductive health and rights, political participation, and violence against women, for close to half a century.  But until recently, it was hard to find a comprehensive analysis of what kinds of transformations occurred as a result of these investments, or strong evidence-based analysis that it is women’s rights organizations and movements that have made the difference.  On the flip side, women’s organizations and movements themselves have not had the resources, capacity, space or mechanisms to analyze their  achievements collectively – they have had far too many more pressing priorities competing for their attention and increasingly meager human and financial resources. The consequences of this data deficit are many.

There is widespread, if somewhat unfounded, skepticism about the value of funding more transformative women’s rights work – such as the consciousness-raising, mobilizing, and movement-building approaches of an earlier time - because they are too “slow” and do not show quick evidence of impact.  Indeed, there is little support today for such core strategies as funding cycles have shrunk to one- or at the most two-year cycles.  There is a shift towards short-term or instrumental strategies – like micro-credit, and the “investing in women and girls” approach (such as Nike’s “Girl Effect” formula) - that are considered to show faster, easy-to-measure results, though these do not necessarily address the deeper roots of gender discrimination and may even aggravate existing gender biases. 

Critics and skeptics are quick to point to women’s organizations’ and movements’ inability to “make a convincing case” for the greater strategic impact of their longer-term and deeper approaches to transforming gender power structures.  But interestingly, these actors are equally unable to make a case that these deeper strategies DON’T work better.  They simply keep feeding us with the superficial data from their quick-fix solutions, which are usually about large numbers but tell us little about how gender relations within relationships, households, communities, or societies have changed, or for how long.  And they tell us nothing at all about how power in the intimate realm of consciousness – factors like self-image, confidence,  or the sense of being subjects of rights with the agency to claim and assert those rights – has changed because women now get loans, sit in the local council, or seek redress.  Here, they become as anecdotal as the very organizations and movements whose evidence they dismiss as…  “just individual women’s stories”. 

It is against this backdrop that AWID decided to undertake an experiment, catalyzed  by a historic funding opportunity afforded to gender equality and women’s empowerment work worldwide: the launch, in 2007, of the path-breaking MDG3 Fund by the Government of the Netherlands.  For the first time in history, a pot of 82 million Euros was made available to 45 organizations – the majority of whom were women’s rights organizations – to undertake a diverse range of programs addressing gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment and property and inheritance rights, and political participation.  The Fund did not dictate strategy or approach, but selected organizations with impressive track records, or the capacity to re-route money to large number of smaller, grassroots-based organizations working with the most marginalized women.

AWID seized the chance to work with this network of organizations (which included itself) to conduct an aggregate analysis of the impact of their MDG3 Fund-supported work – to generate a “big picture” of the changes wrought that would be greater than the sum of its parts.  In the second part of this article, to be published on February 25th, we shall see how this aggregate analysis lays to rest most of the questions about both the "measurability" as well as the value of funding women's rights work that is neither short term nor based on silver bullets....

Read part two of this article: A transformative strategy:the true value of investing in women's rights

Read the full report by AWID Changing Their World





About the author

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

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