20 years of Shamefully Scarce Funding for Feminists and Women’s Rights Movements

For decades, the women’s rights movement and women’s rights organizations have been severely underfunded. AWID research in 2010 revealed that the median budget for 740 women’s organizations all over the globe was a miserly US$20,000. In the same year, as a point of reference, the income for Save the Children International and World Vision International was US$1.442 billion and US$2.611 billion respectively. This is in spite of recent research which proves what feminists and activists have known for a long time—that women’s movements have been the key drivers defending women’s human rights and gender justice worldwide. As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference this year, creates the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and holds the 3rd International Conference on Financing for Development, it is critical to remember that real systemic impact for women’s rights needs significant resources.

20 years of shamefully scarce funding

Recent research has proven what feminists and activists have known for a long time—women’s rights movements and organizations are key drivers for creating change to advance, sustain and defend women’s human rights and gender justice worldwide (Htun and Weldon 2012). The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China was a key catalyst towards this. In Beijing, governments had signed the most visionary global agreement ever achieved in this field, and women who participated in the conference went home equipped with a new set of agreements they could use to drive change in their communities. Financial commitments however, were not as strongly negotiated and secured, which further down the line had significant repercussions for the work of women’s rights organizations and the actual realization of the agreements made in Beijing in 1995. 

On the upside, the word ‘Beijing’ in many countries became associated with a crop of highly visible and dynamic women’s rights activists determined to work toward the full empowerment of women. Many of these activists started organizations that built on the work of existing feminists and women’s rights organizations, and joined movements for gender justice. Initially, the post-Beijing era saw some important resources allocated towards processes that would translate the Beijing Declaration into concrete change on the ground. This was critical in order to hold governments accountable to commitments made, and transform promises into concrete policies, programmes and budget allocations. Yet the resources available to support the crucial work carried out by women’s rights groups did not last long and did not benefit most women’s rights groups. Resources started to shrink at the beginning of the 2000s and more and more groups (both existing and new) that had grown in the post-Beijing era found themselves facing major funding challenges, closing programmes, having to let staff go and reducing the scope of their work. A common comment made repeatedly by women’s rights groups at the time was: ‘Where can we get funding to support our work? Previously existing sources are no longer there…’ 

How much funding is available for women’s rights organizations?

In 2005, AWID started an action based research project to track ‘Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?’ This was based on the need to learn more about the financial situation that women’s rights organizations now found themselves in, and to identify ways in which this financial crisis could be resolved. The information and data gathered through this 2005 research was strikingly clear: at the time, the average annual budget of women’s rights organizations was just US$10,000 a year; the number of large women’s rights organizations with budgets over US$500,000 had declined significantly; and most groups were severely underfunded and were subsidizing the crucial interventions their organizations were engaged in. Women’s rights organizations could be described as being in a state of survival and resistance. During this same period there were also some worrying trends in the donor community. Several donor agencies had significantly cut or closed down their gender or women’s rights programmes. The negative impact of gender mainstreaming was tangible—existing programmes and budgets were in many cases mainstreamed into oblivion! Also some within the donor community had the impression that women’s rights and gender justice work had achieved its goals and was no longer necessary, or that it was already receiving sufficient resources and was therefore no longer a key priority. This misperception impacted the actual amount of resources being disbursed for gender justice and women’s rights at large, but in particular the amounts which were distributed to support feminist and women’s rights organizations.

Advocacy based on our research results undertaken after 2006 by many women’s rights organizations and women’s funds, as well as donor allies, resulted in increases in resources in some donor agencies, with the creation of new funds in some cases or a renewed commitment to fund women’s rights organizing and gender justice more broadly. But this increase in resources did not last long and only in a few cases was sustained funding a reality. Simultaneously, there were major changes affecting different parts of the donor community resulting in an instrumentalist approach to gender equality, a narrow focus on the measurement of change, whilst simultaneously demanding increased capacity. This affected the quantity and quality of resources available (such as increasing donor preference for project funding versus core funding, short-term funding versus long-term funding and the imposition of narrow and simplistic monitoring and evaluation frameworks to monitor and assess impact).

Financial crisis results in funding cuts for women’s organizations

In 2008, the financial recession in the North and attendant global systemic crisis severely hit the already under-funded women’s rights movement. Budgets allocated for overseas development assistance were slashed in many cases, and conservative voices in Northern governments argued for the severe reduction of funding for international development. Significant cuts in funding for women’s rights were also made in other funding sectors, including foundations, women’s funds, INGOs and individual philanthropists. In 2010, AWID conducted a global survey of women’s organizations in five languages with over 1,100 responses from 140 countries. 740 organizations that took part in the survey provided budgetary information. The results showed that the combined income of these organizations for 2010 was close to US$106 million. In the same year, the income for Save the Children International and World Vision International was US$1.442 billion and US$2.611 billion respectively. However funding limitations for women’s rights organizations meant that organizations remained small, with many programmes being cut combined with the attendant staff losses. Women’s rights organizations consistently reported receiving funding for specific projects rather than long term flexible funding. 48% of the organizations that AWID polled in 2011 had never received core funding (invaluable funding needed for the administration of an organization), and 52% had never benefited from multi-year funding (that ensures the sustainable and uninterrupted strategic work of organizations). Women’s rights organizations responded to the crisis in funding by seeking to become more self-reliant through a variety of income generation activities such as membership fees.

Even in the midst of tough economic times, women’s rights activists have advocated for increased resources for the work they do, and some of this effort has reaped results. The 2008 to 2011 period saw a significant increase in resources given to women’s organizations in the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.– although the amount remains a drop in the ocean of total development aid. The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women has provided US$95 million to 368 initiatives in 132 countries and has been an important source of support for women’s rights work. The Millenium Development Goal (MDG)3 Fund by the Dutch government released unprecedented funding for gender justice work—€82 million was disbursed to 45 organizations, mainly women’s rights organizations. This was the largest single fund ever created for gender equality, targeting women’s rights and civil society organizations.

In more recent times, the women’s rights funding landscape has seen the entry of new actors and new money. This takes the form of increased public private partnerships, a rise in the number of wealthy philanthropists supporting development work, expanded corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy programmes and an interest from new foundations and existing foundations in ‘women and girls’. These new actors tend to prioritize ‘economic growth’ and ‘return on investment’ rather than a rights-based perspective.There is then a danger that the agenda being shaped by these parties will not be framed on the centrality of human rights and wellbeing—unless feminists and women’s rights organizations work to influence these new actors. 

7 crucial issues for funding to ensure women’s rights

As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, creates the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and holds the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, it is critical to remember that real systemic impact for women’s rights requires the following:

  1. Ensuring sufficient and diverse resources to design, implement, monitor and evaluate relevant public policies and to support civil society organizations, particularly feminist and women’s rights organizations, as key champions working on the ground and at all crucial levels.
  2. Diversification of resources to support women’s rights and gender justice does not mean that we are letting governments (all of them, from North and South) off the hook. Domestic resources, overseas development aid and other forms of governmental and intergovernmental financing are crucial to achieve women’s rights and gender justice in the long run.
  3. Building collective responsibility for resource mobilization to advance women’s rights and gender justice, and particularly, for resources to support women’s rights organizing, based on a vision that work to advance women’s rights deserves all the resources that are needed and available in a world where so many resources are ill-invested elsewhere, and not a logic of scarcity and competition. 
  4. Understanding the political nature of money and resource allocation. Governments and other powerful actors may speak a lot of their commitment to gender justice and women’s rights, but unless that is supported by all the resources needed to make their commitments a reality and advance much needed transformations, the political will and real commitment is simply not there.
  5. Supporting initiatives that go beyond just empowering individual women or only simplistic magic-bullet solutions for what are clearly deeply rooted structural problems in need of integrated or comprehensive approaches and strategies. Resources given to support women’s rights organizations, in all their diversity, need to be flexible, responsive, and long term. This needs to include support for core work, capacity building, leadership development, and movement building.
  6. Recognizing the diverse forms of women’s rights organizing, and the inequality of access to resources that exist given the intersecting oppressions that women face. This means ensuring that resources are made available to different types of organizations and women’s rights groups and people working for gender justice, so that regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, class, race, ability, marital status, health status, nationality, refugee status, among other categories, all groups are benefiting from access to resources in the conditions they need to strengthen their capacity to advocate for their rights.
  7. Resources should be made available to support feminist and women’s rights organizations in ALL countries, in ALL regions of the world, recognizing the inequalities amongst them. I focus on ALL because I believe that the only way to make transformatory change happen for women and girls around the world, to achieve gender justice in the long run, is to have strong organizations and movements as key drivers and defenders of these agendas everywhere. Current world challenges are global in nature and need to be tackled in every country and at the global level, so that the gains achieved are not lost, but can be sustained and advanced. Through international solidarity we support each other in our struggles to protect, defend and advance women’s rights and gender justice worldwide. 

How mountains can be moved

The impact of the Dutch MDG3 fund (a huge exception to how funding for women’s rights is typically provided) is a powerful example of how mountains can be moved when women’s organizations are supported in strategic ways. Overall, initiatives supported by this fund reached 165 countries on 7 continents with results including over 224 million women gaining a new awareness of women’s rights; 105,305 organizations being strengthened and provided with increased capacity and tools to work effectively; and national governments of 46 countries influenced to strengthen their national gender justice policies and programmes. We need more of the kind of work the MDG3 fund has enabled if the world is serious about funding women’s rights work, and advancing gender justice. 

This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.