“We see our members—grass roots organizations—as the experts,” says Emily Bove, Executive Director of the Women Thrive Alliance.
Women Thrive comprises 285 organizations in 53 developing countries. Based in Washington, D.C., Women Thrive supports its member groups in advancing women’s rights globally. “We only work with groups that are engaged in advocacy,” says Bove, citing Women Thrive’s expertise in this area. The other criteria for Women Thrive membership is that the participant organization have female decision-makers at the helm. Given its expansive membership roster and skeleton staff, much of Women Thrive’s work is virtual, including online courses aimed at helping member groups organize around gender and poverty issues.
While Women Thrive prioritizes women’s rights and equal access to education, Bove stresses that all aspects of development are interconnected, and breaking them up into discrete parts is somewhat arbitrary. “Women don’t wake up and say, ‘today my focus is on my child’s education and tomorrow it’s on clean water.’” The goals of women holding political power, controlling their own bodies, receiving fair pay and having access to education are interrelated, and all are key in furthering development.
Women Thrive was founded in 1998; Bove joined the organization in 2014, and has been leading it since 2016. When I spoke to her by phone in late August, she had just returned from a long-delayed visit to her native France. Bove grew up the town of Annecy in the French Alps, attended university in Lyon, obtained a master’s degree in Migration Studies from the U.K.’s University of Sussex, and subsequently came to the U.S. for a graduate exchange program at Georgetown. Along the way, she has worked in Cameroon, the Caribbean, and the Indonesian province of Acheh. “I’ve always been interested in development, but over time found I was increasingly drawn to its connections to women’s rights,” says Bove. Prior to joining the Women Thrive Alliance, Bove worked for the World Bank on climate change issues.
Women Thrive is an umbrella organization, and prospective members typically learn of it from the internet, conferences, and—“most exciting to me,” says Bove—being recruited by current members. While Women Thrive does not engage in direct service or distribute grants, it has provided tailored support to groups in Sierra Leone, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. A team from Women Thrive recently returned from the small west African nation of Sierra Leone where it delivered a “Raise Your Voice Workshop” on female genital mutilation. Helping local groups eliminate such practices is a key focus of Women Thrive. The UN has long campaigned against what it has termed “harmful practices” toward women and girls (which, in addition to body mutilation, include early and forced marriages, and “honor” crimes directed at females).
Bove says that one way of pushing governments on issues such as female genital mutilation is to leverage the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) which were adopted by 193 countries (including Sierra Leone) in 2015. Of the 17 goals, Women Thrive and its membership are particularly focused on number four (Quality Education) and number five (Gender Equality). Bove argues that “the UN goals can be mechanisms for outlawing genital mutilation.” She notes that advocates in Sierra Leone are increasingly demanding that their leaders fulfill promises they have made regarding outlawing such practices (which were banned in 2014, although enforcement has been lackluster). The workshops that Women Thrive conducted in Sierra Leone aimed to improve female advocacy groups’ messaging, enabling the organizations to better pressure key actors in government and civil society to change attitudes and practices surrounding women’s bodies.
Another aspect of the UN SDGs (which, in addition to education and women’s equality, include goals devoted to reducing poverty, global co-operation, and environmental protection) is their time frame. The goals are to be accomplished by 2030, which, says Bove, goes well beyond the 2 to 3-year periods of many grants and programs. “Long-term processes need to be supported,” she says. “Our development model has failed to do that.” Moreover, one can’t assume that gains in female rights will be maintained over time. Bove cites her experience working in Aceh, the northern Indonesian province devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. “It’s a Sharia-dominated province where women actually had a lot of rights following the tsunami,” she says, “but 10 years later those rights have decreased.”
Women Thrive has never received funding from the U.S. government, counting instead on support from organizations including NoVo Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, New Field Foundation, Imago Dei Fund, and S. Albert Fund at the Philadelphia Foundation, among others. Women Thrive also depends upon “Thrive Ambassadors,” individual donors who leverage their own networks to promote the alliance and its mission.
While Women Thrive is not government-funded, Bove says the U.S. has typically supported empowering women globally. “In the past eight years [prior to the 2016 election], as a U.S.-based organization we could rely on U.S. leadership on these issues.” However, under the current administration, Bove says that “common understanding” has changed, and Women Thrive and like-minded organizations are “back to basics in explaining why supporting women and girls globally is important.” Bove cites a particular example: the latest U.S. delegation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women included an explicitly anti-LGBTQI organization (The Center for Family and Human Rights) that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A further area of serious concern is the U.S. 2018 fiscal year budget, which proposes reducing the International Affairs Budget by 32 percent, including deletion of the “International Organizations and Programs” line item. Naturally, this would undermine the U.S. commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goals, and other support for women’s rights and development globally. “We are working to find champions to maintain development aid,” says Bove, noting that Women Thrive has been informing members of the Senate and House about how damaging the budget cuts will be to women’s lives. To this end, Women Thrive is putting member organizations directly in touch with lawmakers, and Bove notes that “Members of Congress always seem surprised to hear from women and girls on the ground.”
While the current administration poses a significant threat to women’s rights globally, Bove notes that in the last two decades women have increasingly been acknowledged as central to development efforts. “The agenda of the global women’s movement is being mainstreamed into the fight against poverty,” she says. Finally, female-led grass roots organizations and social movements from around the world are demanding more of their political and institutional leaders, and such increased momentum will likely continue, regardless who occupies the White House.
Editor’s Note: Women Thrive is one of three spotlight organizations for Philanthropy Women. These organizations have been designated by our sponsors for media amplification.