Blaustein: Create New Global Systems by Funding Local Women

Dear Readers: This essay is written by Susan M. Blaustein, Founder/Executive Director, WomenStrong International.

As we witness the world aflame with conflict- and climate-fueled disasters, it is urgent this International Women’s Day that we support and strengthen the peacemakers, the healers, the teachers, advocates, the community-builders: of course, I mean the women.

WomenStrong International supports Projet Jeune Leaders in Madagascar. (Image credit:  Projet Jeune Leader)

In climate-related emergencies, we see over and over that local women leaders and the organizations they lead are best-positioned to know who is most vulnerable, where those individuals and families are living, which forms of relief are most urgent, and where those relief services can be safely and reliably located. 

To ensure an effective emergency response that protects human rights, we must trust and shift both resources and decision-making power to the women on the ground who know best what their communities need.

And in situations where acute armed conflict threatens human life, health, and habitation – to wit, Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen — women have long been the most likely, with their families and communities top of mind, to step back enough from the heat of battle to identify opportunities for compromise, the cessation of hostilities, and avenues toward lasting peace.

Yet at this moment when the need could not be greater and we know what works, conservative voices have begun challenging the efficacy of trust-based philanthropy, and support for organizations serving women and girls remains a stubbornly low fraction – less than 2 percent — of U.S. philanthropic funding. 

These two currents have combined to slow the momentum behind this much-needed power shift just as it has been gaining steam, as awareness has grown in recent years of the need to diversify and decolonize aid and development. It’s almost as though traditional philanthropy — issuing largely, it’s worth recalling, from the fortunes and beneficence of white men – so dreads seeing its grip on grantmaking slip from its grasp that it has failed to recognize the sector’s significant progress toward inclusion and respect.

In our work at WomenStrong International with women-led grantee partners in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, we see again and again how the local wisdom and expertise of these experienced women leaders deeply informs the judgment, decisions, and strategies taken by their organizations as they seek to advance gender justice and improve the lives of the women and girls in their communities.  

Here are a few examples:

  • in the Philippines, Madagascar, Zambia, Mali, and Mexico, we’ve seen our partner organizations help young women access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and care; 
  • in India, Bangladesh, Uganda, and El Salvador, our partners train women workers to stand up for their rights, they lead campaigns for safer and more equitable workplaces, and they work closely with local officials, including in challenging political contexts, to train them on gender equality and respect for women;
  • in Malawi, Uganda, Peru, Guatemala, and Afghanistan (pre-Taliban takeover), our partners have worked with educators, fathers, and brothers to enable girls to remain in school and enjoy a gender-sensitive education; 
  • and in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Mexico, Guatemala, and the U.S., our partners have helped  victims of sexual violence to recover and heal, accompanied survivors through the legal system, and advocated against all forms of violence against women and girls. 

Ten years with WomenStrong and ten years prior, leading an urban development project across the sub-Saharan region, have taught me that when local women step up, speak up, and are actually heard, their advice and choices usually turn out to be the best available for the communities they serve. This impressive track record should earn local women-led organizations the trust of both the international non-governmental organizations and philanthropy.

But this may require a change in mindset on the part of those who come to the table with resources to spare.  To ensure that their funds have the widest, deepest, and most efficacious reach, donors need to drop their fear of losing power and influence.  It’s time they take heart and realize that their generosity will go farthest in the hands of the genuine experts: local women, who know best how to put those dollars to good use. 


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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