50.50: Analysis

Want gender equality? Then fund the real change-makers: feminist movements

This week, a UN summit in Paris has yielded over $40bn in funding pledges for gender equality. Will they be hollow promises?

Hakima Abbas Cindy Clark
2 July 2021, 9.50am
Jair Cabrera Torres/Zuma Press/PA Images

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, produced one of the boldest global declarations on women’s rights to date. Equality in decision-making and the economy, as well as violence against women, were some of the crucial issues that it addressed. But progress in turning those commitments into reality has been shamefully slow. 

Now, 26 years later, the UN’s Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Paris aims to build on the legacy of Beijing. Co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France, the GEF aspires to catalyse political action and funding to make the rhetoric a reality. The opening day of the Forum saw the announcement of $40bn in new commitments to advance gender equality globally. Such financing is sorely needed. 

But these commitments will be nothing more than hollow promises if they don’t prioritise direct funding for feminist movements. Such groups are key to both changing policies and shifting norms – but are chronically underfunded.

These groups fight day in, day out for fairer communities, economies and societies, and have historically done so on razor-thin budgets. Few of these groups are attending the Paris meeting – they’re too focused on other priorities. But if they don’t feel the impact of the summit, then the GEF has failed.

A flurry of new actors are joining the conversation in Paris. These include foundations that haven’t been big supporters of gender equality in the past, donor collaborations launching first-time efforts to challenge gender norms, and private sector actors that have been persuaded to take part. 

However, newcomers too often ignore the longstanding work and rich expertise of community-based feminist groups – including about how change happens, and the problems and nuances of their contexts. There is no ‘fly-in’ or ‘cut and paste’ solution to the problem of gender inequality. The solutions are best led by those most deeply impacted.

Chronic underfunding

Since 2002, our organisation – Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) – has researched and analysed the state of funding for women’s rights and feminist organisations. Our global survey of more than 700 feminist groups found that their median income in 2010 was just $20,000 a year. Few have seen the needle move since then.

Half of the groups we surveyed had never received multi-year funding, and 98% didn’t have any money raised for the following year. Today, the biggest demand from feminist organisations when it comes to their resource needs is still direct, long-term and flexible funding

It’s not that the money doesn’t exist. Billions of dollars are committed to gender equality across official development aid, private philanthropy and corporate sector initiatives. Across all those sources, our research consistently shows that only a small fraction of the funding reaches feminist movements: 

  • In 2013, when the trend of “investing in women” was gathering steam among corporate foundations and private sector actors, AWID found that that only 9% of $14.6bn in commitments to “women and girls” were committed directly to feminist organisations.
  • In 2017, only 0.42% of total foundation grants were for women’s rights. 
  • In 2018, feminist movements received less than 1% of all gender-focused development aid and only 0.6% went to civil society in the Global South. This percentage has been fairly consistent for more than a decade. 

This proves what we have known all along: that feminist movements are operating on less than a shoestring, that activism is precarious work, and that women’s rights and feminist organising are often sustained by volunteers and self-funding.  

Feminist movements received less than 1% of all gender-focused development aid in 2018

This trend holds across sectors. Whether the issue is peace-building, climate justice or disability rights, funders sideline work and organisations that are led by women and non-binary people. They’re still missing the mark on what would really be a catalyst for gender equality: funding feminist movements. 

We know that there are genuine stumbling blocks that can make it difficult for large funding agencies to directly resource such groups. For a start, many of the gender portfolios within funding institutions are themselves under-resourced and understaffed. 

Sometimes, donors claim that feminist groups are too small to manage significant resources. But this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: small organisations aren’t trusted with large grants that would build their capacity to “absorb” more. It is high time that major donors made their ability to support movements to absorb larger funds a benchmark of their own success – thus shifting the onus to their own practices and underfunding. 

Other barriers include an ‘insider clique’ dynamic – where funding decisions seem to favour those who speak the same language and use the right buzzwords. Too many funders seem to feel that it’s riskier to support the people directly affected by the problems they’re working to overcome, than it is to support ‘experts’ from outside. There is no excuse for this. 

Fund feminists directly

There is a well-established infrastructure of constituency-led feminist organisations, of all sizes and scopes, which can direct resources to where they can make the most difference. Within this rich ecosystem, there are also a number of feminist funds committed to funding in ways that match movement needs. 

For example, Prospera is an international network (almost 25 years old) of 44 different women’s funds. There’s also the International Trans Fund; UHAI (Africa’s first indigenous fund supporting sexual and gender minorities and sex workers’ human rights), ISDAO (which prioritises the rights and safety of LBGTQ people in West Africa); the Doria Feminist Fund (active in the Middle East and North Africa); the global Black Feminist Fund; and the International Civil Society Action Network’s Innovative Peace Fund (which supports women-led peace-building groups). 

Many of these use participatory grantmaking mechanisms, so that the constituencies they serve are also part of their decision-making. They follow a trust- and solidarity-based model of philanthropy that other, larger funders can learn from. 

In the face of multiple crises, feminist movements are working overtime to build a more just, sustainable and peaceful world. They have the passion, and the expertise, to do this. The best bets to place for gender equality are on these movements – which means putting resources in their hands and following their leadership. 

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