Editor’s Note: The following Opinion piece is by Chiara de Luca and Bethan Cansfield, two women’s rights researchers based in London, UK.
As authoritarianism and inequality spread worldwide, and surveillance technology advances, feminist movements face increasing hurdles in their quest for social justice. Cyberattacks, repression of dissent and harassment against women and LGBTI human rights defenders worsened during the past two years in almost all regions of the world.
Women’s funds have been at the forefront of standing in solidarity with feminist activists during the pandemic. The importance of funding feminist movements’ efforts to defend land rights, promote reproductive and sexual health, enhance political participation, and prevent violence against women is now widely recognized. In Argentina, Benin and Mexico, feminist activism brought changes in abortion laws. In North Macedonia, Moldova, Tunisia, and Turkey, feminist groups successfully campaigned for laws to end violence against women and girls. A recent ODI briefing found feminist movements contribute significantly to gender norm changes.
However, 2021 research by AWID found women’s rights organizations receive only 0.13% of total Official Development Assistance (ODA), staggeringly 0.4% of all gender-related aid, and only 0.42% of foundation grants are allocated towards women’s rights. AWID also found 48% of women’s rights and feminist organizations from the Global South seeking funding report their most recent fiscal year budget was less than $30,000 USD.
Groups led by women experiencing multiple and intersecting discrimination face even greater funding gaps. Research has found Black feminist movements only receive somewhere between 0.1% and 0.35% of annual grant dollars from foundations.
Women’s funds seek to achieve lasting community gains by addressing the root causes of social problems and transforming systems, attitudes, and social norms. They offer a variety of funding opportunities, scholarships, research and advocacy, capacity building, and strategic partnerships. These funds have refined their modus operandi drawing on lessons learned from decades of experience in resourcing feminist movements worldwide.
How Can Women’s Funds Help
Here are four ways that channelling support through women’s funds remains an essential way to fund feminist activism.
Women’s funds can:
- Channel resources to underfunded, marginalised grassroots groups
Women’s funds have positioned themselves as a stable source of support for local feminist groups, particularly in rural localities and outside of the capital cities, working on issues of violence, discrimination, and racism.
“Women’s funds are allies in such ways that they reach secluded communities and grassroots initiatives that remain difficult to access to large donors,” said Reconstruction Women’s Fund’s Coordinator Djurdja Trajkovic. Private foundations often cannot award small grants, sometimes lack the capacity to quickly respond to the needs of women and girls in challenging contexts, and/or cannot fund unregistered and self-organized groups.
Women’s funds are often the first source of funding for groups that are overlooked by the broader donor community. They fulfill a strategic role in directing funding where it is needed the most.
- Contribute to the success and intuitions of the feminist ecosystem
Women’s funds stand out as energetic players within international philanthropic circles, advocating for a sophisticated lens on grant-making for women, girls and trans people. Staff and Boards of women’s funds are often embedded in national, regional, and international feminist movements. These connections allow for women’s funds to quickly respond to emerging threats and opportunities.
- Support individual activists, including those experiencing threats and attacks
Women’s funds show solid understanding of rapid response grant-making mechanisms, which they have often adapted to local contexts at the outbreak of socio-political crises or humanitarian emergencies. They mobilise and disburse emergency funding, connect and publicly stand in solidarity with activists, often accompanying their families and organisations at risk of retaliation. Recently, Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights quickly mobilised to support women human rights defenders in Ukraine. In a two-month period, it awarded over $1 million in urgent response funding, and made over 67 grants.
- Disrupt traditional funding relationships
As many in the sector are grappling with unequal power dynamics, several women’s funds are adopting a participatory grant-making model, shifting power to the hands of applicants to ensure grant-making is field-driven, with maximum reach and inclusivity.
“Donors often require the groups to be formally registered, audited, and offer little flexibility how the funds can be spent,” said Kinga Wisniewska, Resource Mobilisation Co-Manager at FRIDA. “Women’s funds can flow strategically flexible resources towards grassroots activism and movements, using democratic decision-making methods to determine where resources are committed, thereby transforming traditional power dynamics between funder and recipient and encouraging collective ownership, leadership, transparency, and accountability.”
FemFund, the first and only feminist grant-maker in Poland supporting feminist activism with small institutional grants, has been using participatory grant-making to reach under-resourced groups and initiatives. “Participatory grant-making model is part of FemFund’s DNA and a reflection of our core values such as power shifting and radical trust,” said Magdalena Pocheć, Co-Director of the Fund. “It stimulates a reflection on privileges and facilitates solidarity rather than competitiveness. As a movement, we shift from competing over limited resources to strategic management of available funds.”
There is an abundance of reasons for funding women’s funds beyond those we present in this piece. As representatives of communities who know their needs and challenges best, women’s funds remain a timely and strategic way to support feminist activism globally.