VIVA Girls: How MADRE Funds Girls on the Margins

Around the world, girls and teens are exposed to violence, environmental devastation, societal exclusion and harm, and other difficulties. MADRE is an international women’s rights organization that typically partners with women-led groups dealing with war and disaster. It is now stepping up to specifically support girls’ growth as they face diverse challenges through a new grantmaking program: VIVA Girls.

Girls from Columbia working with MADRE. (photo credit: MADRE)

With a focus on listening to and uplifting girls’ voices and solutions, MADRE wants to reach “girls from marginalized communities who endure many forms of discrimination; what some people would call ‘girls on the last mile,’” Executive Director Yifat Susskind says. Susskind offered us insights into how VIVA Girls works. MADRE plans to devote about $3 million to this initiative during the next three years.

MADRE and VIVA Girls

MADRE generally supports efforts led by women, girls and LGBTIQ people relating to ending gender-based violence, advancing climate justice, and building a just peace after periods of war and in prevention of future war. Working in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, Asia and the U.S., MADRE has delivered over $52 million in grants and in-kind contributions since 1983. In 2017, it had assets of about $8.3 million and gave out about $1.5 million in grants.

MADRE uses three main strategies — grantmaking, capacity building and legal advocacy — to support community-based women’s organizations. Similarly, its VIVA Girls program takes three routes to partner with young women: it resources girls through grants; partners with girls through trainings, mentorship, and network-building; and focuses on advocacy, helping girls to have spaces and opportunities to speak when decisions about them are being made.

MADRE describes its work with girls as girl-led, girl-centered (in situations when adults facilitate and lead), girl-focused, intergenerational and intersectional (prioritizing work with LGBTIQ, Afro-descendent, Indigenous, disabled, refugee and enslaved girls, or those conscripted by armed groups). MADRE wants to help girls resist norms that value their “sexuality, labor or reproductive capacities” above all else, stating, “The needs of this age are distinct and require a special focus that is differentiated from that of women.” MADRE recognizes, “Girlhood is a critical time for girls to develop the resolve they need to create their self-defined feminist futures.”

VIVA Girls is part of the Global Girls’ Fund, a 7-year initiative to fund girl-centered and -led groups, seeded by the NoVo Foundation, a prominent funder of women and girls around the globe.

“Some of our biggest [and/or] long-term funders are NoVo, the Oak Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund. We also are grateful for the support of many long-term and generous individual donors,” Susskind says. She says that along with creating “a space to partner with girl-leaders and advance girl-centered work,” VIVA Girls is “exploring the philanthropic sector’s ability and practices to reach girls on the margins, recognizing that philanthropy [is] crucially in need of this kind of capacity building.”

How Does VIVA Girls Help Young Women?

VIVA Girls has already begun to resource and collaborate with girls and girls’ organizations on the ground. In Colombia, it supports Afro-Colombian and Indigenous girl survivors of war, many of whom were exploited as child soldiers and abused. In Lebanon, now home to many Syrians refugees, MADRE backs schooling and healthcare for girls. In Kenya, its grantee partners help girls take on damaging practices like female genital mutilation and early marriage. It states the “girls offer care and peer mentorship to each other.”

Susskind shares a particularly poignant example of a funding endeavor that helps one single teen, Santoshi, to broaden both she and her community’s future. Santoshi is one of only two girls to finish high school in the Bankariya tribe of Nepal. This is a once-nomadic Indigenous community with a dwindling population. Susskind explains that most Bankariya teens have to leave school to earn money in Kathmandu’s carpet industry. She says:

Santoshi devised a dual initiative to keep children in school and to support those already forced to drop out. She accompanies children to school and works with their parents to explain the importance of education, building the buy-in to keep them enrolled. What’s more, for those who have already been forced to drop out, she makes sure they still have chances to learn and grow. She herself provides classes to teach them their Indigenous language, which is at risk of extinction.

As the oldest child, Santoshi has an obligation to support her family. VIVA Girls awarded her a grant that “includes resources both to grow her initiative [and] pay her a salary.” Susskind points out that this type of individually-focused grantmaking, without adult sponsors, a registered organization, a hashtag or media coverage, is uncommon in philanthropy. She says, “[We] recognize the value of Santoshi’s nascent work, how funding can be leveraged to overcome barriers that girls identify to their activism and leadership, and the need to fund girl-led initiatives as they grow.”

Susskind thinks girls are often seen through a binary of being either empowered or victimized. She feels this misrepresents “their complex experiences and solutions. Centering girls means creating spaces that consider all parts of what girlhood may be; growth, resistance, coping, exploration, and their trajectories as individuals and as members of their communities.”

Over the coming year, VIVA Girls will extend its reach to 17 countries and more than 20 partner groups. Susskind says the MADRE team sees the program as a learning model, in which they will “continuously incorporate the lessons we learn from girls and young women to explore new ways to reach and resource them.”


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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at

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