​Women’s rights groups starved of cash


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 roundtable on women’s rights in Southern Africa, and I am tempted to request politely that they donate the lunch or breakfast money to our work on the ground.

I have spent the past few days visiting rural councils in Madagascar that have elected to become centres of excellence (COEs) for gender in local government. Gender Links works with more than 400 such councils in 10 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 it’s most needed?

Rights work is by nature long-term, visionary and strategic. Gender Links and 25 partner organisations campaigned for the South African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development, and for its realignment to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which have more than 30 targets and indicators for achieving gender equality. The protocol is the only subregional 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 more than a decade on localising these commitments through a 10-stage process of developing and implementing local action plans, led by Drivers of Change, such as Blondine Ravaozanany of the Andramasina council in Madagascar, who got a passport and travelled for the first time ever to represent her council at a Southern African Development Community [email protected] summit in Johannesburg in 2014.

The 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 the best-performing rural council nationally and regionally.

Ravaozanany describes the outrage when three youths gang-raped a young woman recently. The community made sure all three were put behind bars. They have declared zero tolerance for gender violence in this rural community about 40km from Antananarivo, the capital. Their resolve gives hope to our belief that, community by community, we can win the war on gender-based violence.

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

Over three years, Gender Links’s work has expanded to every province of 10 countries but 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 nongovernmental organisation (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 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 shock when, in the second round, the €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 for a supplementary fund of €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 compared with 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, which Civicus warned about in its 2015 report, remains real. Wising up to the argument that holds sway in more progressive capitals that the best hope for strengthening democracy in the South is through homegrown 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 United States 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, it seems, have still not been translated into dollar terms.

We are rightly being told that we need to diversify funding bases and the ways of sustaining ourselves. We run a boarding facility 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 and philanthropy remain a tantalising possibility, but they are notorious for their lack of transparency, a practical over strategic focus and the particular preferences of the fund managers.

On International Women’s Day, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that southern-based, medium-sized women’s rights organisations are falling between the cracks: too small for the big funds and too big for the small funds.

Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive of Gender Links.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Colleen Lowe Morna
Colleen Lowe Morna
CEO at Gender Links; women's rights advocate; journalist, author, trainer, researcher, Southern Africa; views expressed are my own, retweets not an endorsement.

Related stories

Women in the Middle East North African region pushing back against patriarchy

The scales are still tilted in favour of men, but younger people with tertiary education have less discriminatory attitudes

We must continue to empower women entrepreneurs to grow Africa

If we increase the number of high-growth, women-founded startups, they can bridge the inclusivity gaps in their respective economies and societies

Mental healthcare must back peace efforts

Examples from Rwanda and Sierra Leone can be incorporated into transitional justice frameworks

Sigh. I’m still protesting

Women may be tired but we must continue to fight abuse for the sake of the new generation

SA’s women are fighting for social justice remarkable women

Female activists are at the forefront of claiming socioeconomic rights through the courts

Proposed New Zealand abortion law to give women right to choose

The government plans to overhaul the country's current abortion laws

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday