All talk, little money for women’s rights

All talk, little money for women’s rights

Date: March 8, 2017
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It’s International Women’s Day and I am struggling with many emotions. I am opening the fourth invitation in as many days to an embassy round table on women’s rights in Southern Africa, and I am tempted to politely request that they donate the lunch or breakfast money to our work on the ground.

I have spent the last few days visiting rural councils in Madagascar that have elected to become Centres of Excellence for Gender in Local Government. Gender Links work with over 400 such councils in ten Southern African countries. But I am also here because our funding for this work has all but run dry. Civil society organisations that do advocacy and rights work, especially women’s rights organisations in the global south, are reeling from the regressive tides in their traditional funding bases.  What exactly is happening, and how is this vital work to be sustained when and where its most needed?

Rights work is by nature long term, visionary and strategic. Gender Links (GL) and 25 partner organisations campaigned for the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and for its realignment to the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals that have over 30 targets and indicators for achieving gender equality. The SADC Gender Protocol is the only sub-regional instrument in the world that brings together existing global and continental commitments to gender equality in one instrument with time-bound targets.

We have worked for over a decade on localising these commitments through a ten stage process of developing and implementing local action plans led by Drivers of Change like Blondine Ravaozanany in Andramasina council, who got a passport and travelled for the first time ever to represent her council at a SADC Protcol@work summit in Johannesburg in 2014. The COE slogan “peace begins at home” is proudly displayed at the entrance to the modest council building. Two of the three plaques on the wall are the awards for best performing rural council nationally and regionally. Ravaozanany describes the outrage when three youth gang raped a young woman recently. The community made sure all three young men were put behind bars. They have declared zero tolerance for gender violence in this rural community about 40 km from Antananarivo, the capital city. Their resolve gives hope to our belief, that community by community, we can win the war on GBV.

But such initiatives need to be replicated thousands of times over for women and girls to realise their rights in Southern Africa. While the rhetoric is ratcheted up in March, the resources are sadly waning.

Over the last three years, GL’s work has expanded to every province of ten countries yet our resource base has halved. With no funding from our own governments, regional organisations rely largely on bilateral northern donors to do their work. In 2015, CIVICUS, the global NGO network, warned that funding for advocacy is being diverted to humanitarian crises. Very little of what is left is specifically designated for women’s rights with the excuse often heard that this has been “mainstreamed” into other areas.

The Dutch government’s Funding Leadership Opportunities for Women (FLOW) fund remains one of the few specifically designated to women’s rights work. But in 2015 the 35 organisations that previously benefited from these funds woke up to a rude shock when in the second round the Euro 90 million went to nine International Government Organisations (five based in the Netherlands) on the pretext that to reduce administrative costs the Dutch government needed to give more money to fewer organisations. Thanks to lobbying efforts supported by Dutch feminist organisations, the Dutch parliament voted a supplementary fund of Euro 40 million called Leading from the South to be disseminated by women’s rights funding mechanisms based in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Although the funds are a drop in the ocean of what is needed, the campaign made a significant point – nothing about us without us.

But the pitting of northern and southern NGOs against each other that CIVICUS warned about in its 2015 report remains real.  Wizening up to the argument that holds sway in more progressive capitals that the best hope of strengthening democracy in the south is through home grown efforts, a number of the large international NGOs are nominally registering their head offices in the south. Add to that Brexit, a Donald Trump presidency in the US, and the right wing winds blowing in France, the Netherlands and even Scandinavian countries, and the future looks bleak. What exactly do feminist foreign policies in Sweden and Canada mean?  These too, it seems, have still not been translated into dollar terms.

We are rightly being told that we need to diversify funding bases and ways of sustaining ourselves. We run a boarding facility, the GLCottages, and do consulting work when we can, but that would run a regional organisation for no more than a month or two.  The corporate sector, philanthropy and foundations remain a tantalising possibility, but they are notorious for their lack of transparency, practical over strategic focus, and particular preferences of the fund managers. On International Women’s Day, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that southern based, middle-size women’s rights organisations are falling between the cracks: too small for the big funds and too big for the small funds.

Blog written by Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links


Author: Colleen Lowe Morna

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