Movements, money and social change: how to advance women’s rights

At the UN CSW underway in New York, a statement signed by almost 1000 women’s rights organizations calls out the lack of ambition for the scale of the issues at stake, and for real resources and accountability.

zohra moosa
10 March 2015

It’s deadline year for the Millennium Development Goals and the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. What does the landscape look like for feminist activists, groups and movements in this pivotal year? Contradictory. For example, looking at the UN Commission on the Status of Women that is now underway New York and is this year tasked with reviewing progress on the Platform: on the one hand, we have an unprecedented civil society presence, with 8600 individuals from 1100 organizations registered to attend and a record 450 parallel events officially registered as part of the NGO CSW Forum. On the other, the political declaration for this year’s CSW, which is usually the final statement of the conference and represents the work of public debate over the course of two weeks, was negotiated and agreed by governments, without providing opportunity for transparent civil society engagement or input, before the CSW even began.

At the end of last week, activists mobilized quickly to voice their concern at the weakness of the declaration even as the final negotiations on the text were happening behind closed doors in readiness for it being tabled at the CSW’s opening session. A statement signed by almost 1000 women’s rights organizations calls out the lack of ambition for the scale of the issues at stake. One of the key criticisms is the declaration’s failure to recognize ‘the critical and unequivocal role women’s organizations, feminist organizations and women human rights defenders have played in pushing for gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls.’ Relatedly, the statement stresses the need for governments to commit to creating ‘an enabling environment and resources to allow women’s organizations, feminist organizations and women human rights defenders to be able to do their work free from violence.’

It is these twin gaps in policy making that if un-addressed will continue to undermine the full realization of gender equality and the human rights of all women, girls and trans* people: recognition of the role of women’s rights groups and movements in creating and sustaining social change, and recognition of their need for adequate and appropriate resources to achieve these results.

Movements matter

Women, girls and trans* people working together have repeatedly demonstrated that advances in their rights have been achieved because feminist groups and social movements have pushed for them themselves. From the creation of the Platform for Action, through the Women, Peace and Security agenda, to the many legal and social norm changes that have been achieved around the world, and right back again to the creation of UN Women itself: feminist groups and movements have been the critical driving force behind these achievements. These gains repeatedly demonstrate: relationships of power change as the result of groups of disempowered people coming together to understand and reflect on their conditions (consciousness-raising), and then organizing themselves and others to demand change that better serves their interests based on their particular contexts (mobilization, collective action).

The largest relevant statistical review ever conducted shows this empirically: data from 70 countries over the course of four decades found that the presence of autonomous feminist movements was the single most important factor in advancing action to tackle violence against women – more important than a country’s wealth or the number of women in government.

Research from the now nine-year old Pathways of Empowerment programme, a consortium of feminist researchers from institutes around the world, similarly found that shifts in relationships of power among individuals and communities and in wider society are not the product of outsiders bestowing ‘empowerment’ nor of isolated individuals working independently to make it so. In Pathways language, there is a clear process of ‘feminist constituency building’ that is essential, and this work by women’s rights organizations is both necessary and critical: ‘Women’s organizing inspired by feminist principles of equality and justice is vital to achieving positive social change.’ Jessica Horn’s recent and important work examining gender and social movements for the Institute of Development Studies offers a wealth of further evidence illustrating the point.

Movements need money

Given the evidence, it is no wonder that the Association for Women’s Rights in Development has for many years now been focused on where to find the resources to sustain these movements. In its latest publication Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots, the organization once again examines in detail the state of financing for women’s rights organizing. It finds that while ‘women and girls’ are higher on political agendas, the collective action of women and girls is not; as a result, resources are flowing to individuals rather than movements, and women’s rights activism and organizing remains grossly underfunded given not just the state of the problem, but the impact they can and are having in ‘solving’ the problem.

This neglect of the role of women’s rights groups, organizations and movements’ roles in advancing gender equality and the rights of women, girls and trans* people, and the subsequent underfunding of their work, is a common phenomenon. In the discussions on financing for development that form part of the post-2015 framework planning, for example, there has been a welcome and  significant emphasis on financing for gender equality and women’s rights, including specific international and UN-coordinated meetings on this exact topic.

This emphasis, however, has tended to analyse what issues to finance, and rather less on who to finance. Given the need to ensure sufficient resources are made available for the gender equality and women’s rights agendas within the post-2015 framework, and the fact that the audience of these conversations is mostly governmental, this is perhaps not entirely surprising. It is however disappointing when no mention is made of women’s rights organizations and movements at all. The post-2015 framework will simply not be able to achieve its aims on gender equality and women’s rights, noble and lofty as they are, if the women’s rights groups, organizations and movements that fuel social change on women’s rights are not sufficiently equipped to continue to carry on their work.

Women’s funds - good funders for women’s movements

Where there is funding for women’s rights groups, organizations and movements, it is generally not adequate – the demand for resources vastly outstrips the supply. In addition, it is on the whole also not appropriate – it is not accessible to smaller, grassroots groups for example, or it is structured in ways that limit rather than expand possibilities.

Women’s funds offer a way forward in this respect. There are almost forty such funds around the world, not including the many women’s funds that operate just within the United States alone. These funds have, especially since the Beijing Platform for Action was established twenty years ago, become extremely expert at funding women’s movements around the world for a number of reasons, outlined in Mama Cash’s recent briefing Investing well in the right places: why fund women’s funds. These include the fact that women’s funds fund smartly: they prioritise flexible, core and multi-year funding that allows smaller, grassroots groups and movements to determine their own priorities, adapt and respond to unexpected opportunities and cover essential operating costs such as safe spaces to meet and salaries for staff to carry on their work in relative security. They are also from, of and for the social movements they support, and as a result are well-connected to and have an expert understanding of the needs and opportunities of women, girls and trans* people working for human rights in their contexts.

Policy makers seeking to advance women’s rights and gender equality should recognize and resource the leading catalyst in securing such social change: women’s rights groups, organizations and movements. Because many of these operate at a grassroots level, take on controversial issues, or do not have the administrative or financial infrastructure to reach what funding is available, policy makers should seek to collaborate with and fund the women’s funds that are uniquely and best placed to sustain them.

(* To respect their preference, Mama Cash uses the name “trans*,” with an asterisk, denoting a placeholder for the "entire range of possible gender identities that fall under the broad definition of trans". Mama Cash explicitly supports trans*activism that is guided by feminist perspectives because of its commitment to support work that transforms unequal gender power relations, and an acknowledgement that women’s rights movements are questioning the limits of a binary definition of gender and exploring ways to include trans* perspectives.)





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