In a Pandemic, Gender Equality More Important Than Ever

Announced in June 2019 with a historic contribution of $300 million CAD from Global Affairs Canada, the Equality Fund is an innovative model delivering unprecedented resources to feminist movements. Our goal is ambitious: Mobilize $1 billion for gender equality in philanthropic and investment capital in Canada and around the world.

Canada’s Minister for International Development and Minister of Women and Gender Equality announced Canada’s $300 million contribution to the Equality Fund on June 2, 2019. Members of the Equality Fund Collective from left to right:  Sharon Avery (Toronto Foundation), Keely Tongate (PAWHR), Lindsay Patrick (RBC Capital Markets), Theo Sowa (African Women’s Development Fund), Jess Tomlin (Equality Fund), Jessica Houssian (Equality Fund), Paulette Senior (Canadian Women’s Foundation), Andrea Dicks (Community Foundations of Canada), Nadine St. Louis and The Honourable Maryam Monsef.

We are shifting power and resources to organizations and leaders on the frontlines. Why? Because this is the most effective way to fight inequality. 

And now with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, there is new complexity and unprecedented challenges as we build one of the largest feminist institutions in the world.

This crisis brings into sharp focus the reason for our undertaking; to fund the most important and impactful work of feminist movements and organizations on the ground. This crisis is exacerbating gender inequality globally. Yet in the midst of the chaos, there are reasons for hope.

The Equality Fund’s first priority is the health and safety of our team and our partners. Our team will work remotely for as long as necessary. Although we are well-equipped to work this way because of our organization’s flexible and optional work-from-home culture, the new reality of child and elder care during social distancing presents new challenges we are working together to navigate.

We developed a set of working feminist principles for the Equality Fund to guide us through this period:

  1. We trust that each of us is doing her or his best;
  2. We anticipate and acknowledge significant work disruptions;
  3. We expect each team member to be clear about her or his reality, and we will do our very best to accommodate and support those needs;
  4. We need to know what can and cannot be advanced during this time;
  5. We commit to frequent communication with our team and community; and
  6. We commit to deepening our understanding and publicly sharing the unique gendered impacts of the pandemic.

What do these principles look like in practice? It means understanding that schedules are hard to manage with children, parents, and pets around. It means understanding that WiFi bandwidth needs to be rationed between partners working from home. It means recognizing the need to step away from the computer, go outside, and prioritize self-care. It means checking in with one another on how we are doing, really. It means finding and sharing humour at the end of meetings and setting up virtual coffee dates. It means prioritizing our work and communicating more intentionally with colleagues using new tools and platforms. It means offering to help. It means sharing what the (lack of) work-life balance really feels like.

Most importantly, it means believing in our colleagues and trusting that we are all doing the best we can.

This has not changed.

We also recognize that our ability to shift operations to remote work is a privilege not shared by many.

With the Equality Fund, we are building what we hope will be one of the world’s largest feminist institutions. As we build, we commit to our feminist values and cultivating an organizational culture that will survive and thrive despite the pandemic. We believe our organization and team members need the same flexible support and trust as our grantee partners on the ground.

We believe in supporting women and youth-led organizations with flexible core funding that allows them to do what is needed to further their impact.

This has not changed.

For our grantee partners, we understand that this pandemic and the health and political responses to it may already be changing the ways they move, work, and live. We remain committed to honouring our partnerships with additional flexibility and enhanced communication and accompaniment. We support them to take necessary health and safety precautions, whatever that requires.

We are also listening to how these organizations are shifting their work to meet the needs of their communities. For example, one partner in Lebanon has begun distributing pertinent health information to marginalized groups, including communities and camps hosting refugees from Syria. While working from their homes, they are using available resources to reach women with the information they need. In Senegal, a collective of sex workers asked to reallocate funds to purchase masks, hand sanitizer, and bleach for their members.  

Time and time again, feminist organizations and movements pivot and activate in times of crisis, using the assets and opportunities they have to catalyze change. This is still true in the midst of this pandemic.

This crisis is and will continue to exacerbate the structural inequality that has long existed. It is showing how truly precarious the systems are, especially for service workers, single parents, healthcare workers, domestic abuse survivors, sex workers, labour rights, and more. Crises like COVID-19 make inequality even worse, whether that is based on gender, race, ability, health status, nationality, or any combination of these.

News outlets are covering the repercussions of the pandemic for women. There is more awareness of issues women face. For example, sex work is changing in different parts of the world, as in Jamaica and the Netherlands. Women are having difficulty accessing other reproductive health services at a minimum, and in some places, there are efforts to rollback reproductive rights using the pandemic as an excuse. Just as gender analysis in media stories is on the rise, so too is the consideration of gender in policy making and emergency response.

The Government of Canada’s COVID-19 economic aid package includes $50M for shelters and sexual assault centres to support people fleeing gender-based violence. France will move domestic abuse survivors to hotels, and has announced that victims can alert pharmacists if they’re in danger. Spain, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay have all shored up their emergency phone lines with more staff, and built social media campaigns to reach women in danger. These governments recognize the dangers of asking people to stay in unsafe homes, and have strengthened support for institutions offering safe havens in an uncertain world.

These are all signs of hope. Yet there is so much more work to do. 

Jessica Houssian

Author: Jessica Houssian

Jessica Houssian is Co-CEO of the Equality Fund. She fell in love with feminism as a little girl and has focused her career on advancing women’s equality ever since. Jessica is a Senior Advisor at Women Moving Millions, a global community of women philanthropists who invest boldly with a gender lens. Jessica currently serves on the Board of Directors of RefugePoint and as Co-chair of The Houssian Foundation. In 2019, Jessica co-founded the Equality Fund, a Canadian-led collaboration that combines international feminist philanthropy and grantmaking with an innovative investment component to its work.

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