Women, Voice and Power: Shifting to Feminist Frameworks

Editor’s Note: The following article is by Emily Brown, feminist activist and Oxfam’s former Lead for Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a terrifying reality worldwide, Southern feminist activists have organized together to provide both immediate local services and long-term support to those affected by poverty, violence and oppression. They have effectively organised environmental, anti-racist, labour, peace and political movements across communities to promote and protect women’s rights and social justice.

On September 25, One Billion Rising is organizing a worldwide protest for Afghan women. (Image credit: One Billion Rising)

As Afghan women join in the streets of Kabul to mark one year since the Taliban’s return to power and call for ‘bread, work and freedom’ – here’s MADRE on the sophisticated organising of local women’s rights networks last year – barely mentioned in mainstream media coverage of recent events:

“There’s a kickass network of local Afghan women’s organisation who have built a country-wide escape and support network for women’s rights activists facing targeted assassination by the Taliban. Contrary to US media reports, Afghan women are not all “hiding in their houses.” They’re organising. And they’re amazing at it. They’re making longer-term plans for clandestine girls’ schools, clinics and ongoing women’s rights work which will reply on the older generation s experience from the 1990s and on strategies developed by women living under ISIS occupation in Syria and Iraq. But today, the priority is to prevent women from being assassinated by Taliban fighters and protect girls from sexual slavery.”

Men make up 76% of national parliamentary decision-making structures and control 86% of the world’s corporations. This ‘male 75%’ leadership dominates global and local decisions on who has access to quality school and health services; how we do or do not protect the planet; who pays and who avoids taxes; and when and where weapons are sold or fired.

women's rights
Image: Photographer Unknown. (Image Credit: Oxfordshire Women’s Suffrage Centenary Street Exhibition, May 2021)

As the world collectively commits to ‘just recoveries’ in the wake of the health, economic and social devastation still being caused by COVID-19, who gets to decide what ‘just’ means?

What does the ‘conspicuous absence’ of women’s knowledge, experience, intersectional feminist analysis and priorities mean for the quality of our intelligence and of our collective decision-making?

The dominance of male perspectives and voices in the ‘big boy’ politics of the world’s council and court rooms, parliaments, boards and media houses means that the work of women community and political activists and leaders – particularly those from marginalised groups – is largely undervalued, often overlooked.

And where feminists activists are organising effectively in community and political spaces, this work is often undertaken at great personal risk to those involved. It’s also work that’s still juggled around the demands of family hours and unpaid care responsibilities.


As the evidence clearly demonstrates, the transformative feminist leadership we see emerging across the world today is not ‘just’ a collective of scattered examples of small-scale activisms and local organizing. Feminist activists, leaders and their organisations and movements are working creatively together to build on and expand socially-just, racially-just, system-wide transformations to the way entire economies work, healthcare is provided, and social protections are designed and function.

A growing body of evidence shows that when decisions are made more equally and inclusively, and are rooted in locally owned, intersectional feminist movements and political agendas, they have immediate and long-term human development benefits for all.

new paper draws on learning from a wealth of Southern feminist organizing, and women’s political leadership globally. It demonstrates the concrete development impacts that Oxfam’s feminist partners and so many others have seen as a result of this approach and synthesizes insights about how change happens. It draws on both robust programme evaluations and reflections from the lived experiences of some of the activists and leaders with whom Oxfam has had the privilege of working. These include:

• A review of progress in over 120 countries over the 40 years to 2015, which demonstrates that feminist movements contribute directly to women’s economic empowerment, found that feminist mobilization is ‘associated with more expansive economic rights, better support for both paid and unpaid domestic work, and better protection from sexual harassment’.

• The same review found that feminist mobilization is associated with smaller gender wage gaps and, indirectly, is positively associated with women’s improved access to land rights and financial institutions, including access to their own bank accounts.

• Analysis of 181 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that ‘processes that included women as witnesses, signatories, mediators, and/or negotiators demonstrated a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years. This increases over time, with a 35% increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years.’

• In Kenya, partners in Oxfam’s WE-Care programme supported the mobilization of over 800 women in Nairobi’s informal settlements to advocate for essential care supporting services, leading to increases in expenditure on accessible water points and Early Childhood Development Education Centres by 30% and 11%, respectively.

The power – and benefits – of transformative feminist leadership approaches like these are growing harder to ignore. Increasingly, unapologetically, women in every country are coming together to organize, fundraise and strategize in kind, creative, revolutionary and fierce ways to demand change.

Fortunately, a wealth of guidance exists from Southern feminist activists and funders for Feminist Givers looking to use their power and resources to support this growing movement for change. Some of the ‘Top Tips’ gathered for the Women, Voice and Power paper include: 

1. Read, learn, and share!

There’s so much fascinating feminist analysis, intersectional thinking and working by Southern feminists around the world that so rarely makes it into mainstream newsfeeds – or donor conversations about how change happens. Find out which feminist groups are working and writing on the issues you’re interested in… and help recentre these voices and expertise in the debates you’re part of. From feminist perspectives on ecology and economics to indigenous land rights and leadership, mining and militarism to trade and tax…the breadth and depth of this specialist knowledge – and the important new perspectives they provide – is boundless.  

2. Listen and Learn from the Pros.

Listen to and learn from feminist organizations who have taken their work to scale about the challenges of embedding feminist politics and practice in their work – as more of us test and replicate more feminist ways of working.

3. Include time and resources for process and content learning in all your giving.

These precious and rarely funded spaces enable those at the frontlines of community organizing and influencing to step back, rest, reflect… and to keep developing ways of working and intersectional collaborations that are more likely to be safe, effective and sustainable. 

4. Include funds for locally-designed solutions.

Maximize the safety of the gender and social justice ‘disruptors’ you support in all your giving.

5. Partner with Women’s Funds around the world

This is one of the most effective ways of getting money in agile and safe ways to the groups that need it most. Draw on the experiences of Women’s Funds and feminist funding innovations to provide small, core funds and accompaniment to informal activists and movements to support the nurturing and maturing of the next generation of activists and leaders. This includes for example, funding registered groups to host unregistered sister groups; providing desk and meeting spaces, and free legal or communications advice and services; and for INGO partners to minimize and handle as much as possible of the unavoidable grant management and compliance burdens themselves

6. Where the work you fund is not specifically focused on gender equality, demand gender outcomes

Use your power to demand at least one gender-transformative (not ‘gender-aware’ or ‘gender-sensitive’) outcome. This one shift helps moves development sector programming from ‘tinkering at the edges’ to genuine engagement in – and critically, trialling, testing and learning from – the very process of doing things differently. 

7. Finally and critically, talk openly about your intersectional feminist giving.

Your strategies are truly leading the way. Share your experience so that, together, we start to shift donor and public narratives about what this feminist work and feminist donorship looks like – and why it matters.   As a new women’s rights financing campaign boldly states, it is time for more of us – all of us – to recognise the real and lasting power of this kind, brave, fierce intersectional feminist work. It is time indeed to #StopTalkingStartFunding


About the Author: Emily Brown is a feminist activist and freelancer – and Oxfam’s former Lead for “Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights”. Here she reflects on what feminist evidence tells us about the power of this work, why it matters and what it means for ‘mainstream’ development practice.Her original blog – and further information on Oxfam’s work on transformative feminist leadership globally – is available here.


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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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