/ 7 March 2017

​Women’s rights groups starved of cash

Activists and supporters chant during a march for women's rights on International Women's Day 2016 in Rio de Janeiro
Activists and supporters chant during a march for women's rights on International Women's Day 2016 in Rio de Janeiro


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 Protocol@work 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.