Women's human rights: Watering the leaves, starving the roots

Women and girls are in the public eye, recognized as key agents in development as never before. So why doesn't the funding for women's right's organisations reflect this? A new report from AWID provides critical analysis of the funding landscape

Angelika Arutyunova
1 November 2013

For the past eight years the Association for Women's Rights in Development ( AWID) has been tracking and analysing the funding - or lack of it - for women's human rights work. AWID's latest report, Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots, found that in 2010 the median annual income of over 740 women’s organisations around the world was USD 20,000, revealing that the increased spotlight on women and girls has had relatively little impact on improving the funding situation for the vast majority of women's organisations globally. This phenomenon is explained in part by the fact that the heightened international focus on women and girls as individuals is taking place without recognition of the critical role of the sustained, collective action, by feminists and women's rights activists and organisations that has been at the core of women's rights advancement throughout history. 

The global context 

From the global economic crisis, to the rise in the nature and extent of violence against women, trends for women’s rights are alarming. The growing repression of social movements and civil society is manifested in a shrinking of democratic spaces and the criminalisation of political dissent - often using instruments developed for the 'war on terror' and terrorism. Militarism as an ideology and a practice to deal with social and political problems has gained more legitimacy in recent years with the use of state force becoming commonplace both within and outside of  “conflict situations.”

Regressive religious political forces across all regions and religions use religion to mask political and economic interests and agendas to assert social control. The rise of fundamentalist ideas has been accompanied by increased violations of women’s human rights, particularly with limitations on women’s bodily autonomy, sexual freedoms and reproductive rights. There is an ever growing backlash against women's rights.

In the complexity of the current landscape, tapping the power of collective action is crucial, yet because many feminists and women’s rights activists and their organizations are working within contexts of increasing risk, conflict and security concerns - with minimal access to resources - their room to manoeuvre is severely constrained. 

With many parts of the world still reeling from the impact of the financial crisis and economic recession, and the impact of the vast public mobilizations around the world challenging authoritarian regimes and economic injustice far from certain, women's rights and social justice activists are questioning the ideology that drives development strategies and calling for alternative strategies to promote deep structural transformations. Lydia Alpizar, Executive Director of AWID, writes, " sustainable change for women’s rights requires women’s collective action and power. Supply driven approaches, such as empowering individual women with jobs, education, loans, or access to political office cannot achieve systemic, multi-domain change, though it might improve individual women’s quality of life or voice in public affairs. Sustainable change in gender power can only be achieved by demand driven approaches, by mobilizing women, building their awareness of their strength and the possibility of change, and mobilizing their collective power to lead and act together for their vision of a more just social order.  In other words, we believe, and have witnessed ( see articles on openDemocracy 50.50 by Srilatha Batliwala Beyond individual stories: women have moved mountains and A transformative strategy: the true value of investing in women's rights )  that by building movements of women, with a strong consciousness of the roots of inequality, of social and gender power structures and the mechanisms that sustain and reproduce them, we can work together to seek a wider, deeper, and more sustainable social transformation". 

Funding trends

The funding landscape is diverse, complex and rapidly changing. Relying solely on the same donor allies of the past is not sustainable or possible any longer. There is a strong and urgent need to expand the pool of funders who understand  the power and impact of women's rights organisations and collective action. 

While the debates are flourishing in some sectors, the model of development assistance that emerged out of colonial relationships, and driven by logic that prioritizes markets and economic growth, seems to be firmly re-entrenched. Recent international processes have strongly affirmed the roles of diverse stakeholders in development: not just states and multi-lateral institutions, but private sector actors, philanthropic institutions, individual philanthropists and civil society organizations as well. Mechanisms and sources of development financing and philanthropy are becoming increasingly diversified, but economic growth and return on investment are the priority, with human rights and well-being taking a backseat. Yet the context is complex precisely because of the increasing diversity of actors and agendas taking part. Just as states cannot be treated as a monolithic actor, neither can the private or philanthropic sectors. These actors represent a range of agendas and experiences, with powerful groups coming from both traditional donor countries and emerging economies, and thus presenting complex challenges and diverse opportunities in terms of leveraging support for women’s rights.

There is an ever increasing interest in women and girls as a priority - at least a rhetorical one - in nearly every funding sector.  Vast resources are becoming available under the broad umbrella of ‘development’ and trends like “investing in women and girls" are increasingly heralded as a keystone strategy for women’s economic empowerment, and indeed, for broader development and economic growth. Such interest provides a strong impetus for civil society actors to expand their work with women and girls, though not always from a rights-based perspective. We hear wide variations on this discourse from actors as diverse as the World Bank, Newsweek, and Walmart, and it is hard to see the  rhetorical commitments translating in concrete funding and programming. A striking example is the World Bank: while promoting its 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, its 2011 investments in social development, gender and inclusion actually decreased from 2010 levels and made up less than two percent of the Bank’s annual budget.

Most of the newer actors in the filed of financing and philanthropy are coming out of the private sector, and not only are they speaking of 'investing in women and girls', they are partnering with development organizations, administering large development programs, talking about expanding women’s membership in their board rooms and supply chains, and having a real influence on defining funding agendas, priorities, and practices. The role of actors from the private sector - diverse organizations and companies that operate on a “for-profit” basis - is increasingly bringing with it new approaches and resources. Private sector interest in, and approaches to development philanthropy and women and girls, is infiltrating traditional development and funding sectors, raising questions for how women’s organisations can critically engage with this trend. 

Beyond mere presence of private sector in development and philanthropy, there is a much broader shift underway in the way development itself is being financed with a change in emphasis from aid to investment. This shift is reflective of the growing influence of private sector paradigms (and their very diverse approaches and priorities), as well as rapidly changing notions of what development is or should be. Former World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, articulated this position most succinctly when he said that in a world Beyond Aid, development assistance would be integrated with – and connected to – global growth strategies, fundamentally driven by private investment and entrepreneurship.

As we approach 2015, with the anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals and a post- 2015 UN Development Framework, women's rights organisations and the global women's movement are reviewing past progress and exploring visions for the future with some urgency.  It is a critical time for feminist and women’s rights advocates, organizations and movements -  and our allies - to come together to shape funding agendas, and put forward our own visions and strategies for realising women’s rights and justice.

Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots is the fourth in the series of Where is the Money for Women’s Rights? action research conducted by AWID. The extent to which women’s rights organizations and allies understand the trends, engage in relevant debates and influence key actors, is key to their ability to mobilize crucial resources to sustain and grow their work. In our research, we did not believe it was enough to simply ask about the resources flowing towards women’s rights work. Instead, we were concerned with the resources reaching organizations or groups “with a primary focus on promoting women’s rights, gender equality, and/or empowerment.” These groups play a crucial strategic role in advancing women’s rights and sustaining past achievements. They are groups rooted in social movements with extensive histories of building knowledge, practice and innovation for creating positive changes in women’s lives over time, from the grassroots to global levels. Now more than ever, as the world speaks of the power of ‘investing in women’, the experiences and perspectives of these organizations, historically closest to transformative work and major achievements for women’s rights, must not be overlooked or under-resourced.  The collective wisdom of these women's rights activists and advocates should not be made invisible and marginalized again.

Read more articles on 50.50 stemming from AWID's research and conferences on women's movement building

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