Fueling Hope amid Heartache: 5 Ways to Support Feminist Movements

September 17, 2021

Let’s face it: for anyone who cares about gender equality, these have been tough and exhausting times. The UN has estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing an additional 47 million women into poverty. A shadow epidemic of gender-based violence has spread along with it. A rising wave of authoritarian governments are sowing fear and distrust in gender equality movements, weaponizing them as a tool to divide, confuse, and distract. Now a wave of crises—in Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, and beyond—threaten the safety and futures of millions of women, girls, and non-binary people.

And yet, there is cause for hope. Against all odds, feminist movements  continue to forge ahead. They are building power, shifting laws and policies, and fighting for a future of equality and dignity for everyone. 

As Canada celebrates Gender Equality Week, we are celebrating feminist movements, the single most important driver of women’s rights and a gender equal future.

Today, the world has even more proof that feminist movements play a pivotal role in demanding and securing women’s rights across a wide range of issues, including: violence against women, economic rights, reproductive rights, and political representation. Still, data show that feminist movements still receive less than one percent of all gender- focused bilateral official development assistance.

As we mark Gender Equality Week, we are challenging the world to remember: gender equality is impossible without strong and autonomous feminist movements. From Monday through Friday, we will be highlighting 5 ways that we can come together to support their transformative work. And we will be spotlighting perspectives and examples from others across the sector who have long been advocating for these principles, and whose work offers a model for others.

 

1. Trust feminist movements

Big donors often love to use images of girls and women in glossy promotional materials—and then refuse to trust those same girls and women with funding commensurate with their work. Feminist movements, led by those with lived experience of injustice, who hold the wisdom and perspectives needed to build solutions that are lasting and that reach everyone. Yet traditional charity models are designed to keep power and resources at the top, assuming answers and strategy come from outside movements rather than from within. Governments and philanthropic funders should listen deeply to feminist movements, trust in their leadership, and back up that trust with direct and sustained support.

“Too often, we have had rhetoric about gender equality as central to world well-being that is not followed through with money. If we don’t have resourcing, it becomes rhetoric without action,” notes Theo Sowa, co-chair of the Equality Fund Board.

Our sister women’s funds offer a powerful model for philanthropy that trusts in girls, women, and non-binary people as experts and agents of change in their communities. This approach is rooted in a belief that complex social problems are best solved by locally-owned and driven solutions. They offer a model for building lasting change—and power—from the ground up.

 

2. Provide long-term, multi-year support

Put simply: achieving gender equality is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to shift attitudes, behaviours, norms, policies, systems, and laws. Women’s rights organizations deserve long-term, multi-year funding that matches the scope, ambition, and potential of their visions. Long-term support frees up the precious time of feminist mobilizers, letting them focus on their work (and our collective future), rather than on chasing small grants and managing short-term budgets.  As Beatriz Gonzalez Manchon, Co-Vice President of Global Programs at the Equality Fund, describes: “We need our most promising feminist changemakers to be out in the world—dreaming and doing—not in their offices deciphering grant agreements and filling out applications and endless reports.” 

Mukami Marete, co-executive director of the East Africa Sexual Health and Rights Initiative and a Black Feminist Fund board member offers an additional perspective: “My dream is Black feminist movements being able to organize, knowing they’re supported in the long term. Because the problems aren’t going away any time soon.”

 

3. Provide flexible funding

In the fight for gender equality, progress is often two steps forward and one step back. Pushback is not only inevitable, it is by design—part of a concerted, well-documented effort to turn back the clock on advances made by feminist movements. In the meantime, pandemics, natural disasters, and conflicts rise without warning. Through it all, women’s rights activists and organizations must adjust and pivot to meet rapidly shifting challenges—and opportunities—on the ground. In the rise of COVID-19, for example, digital security and broadband access, and all of its associated costs, training, and infrastructure, became essential overnight.  Flexible, general operating support—rather than heavily restricted funding tied to projects favoured by an outside funder—gives these organizations the space and power to set their own course, grow their work according to their own visions, and win the fight for lasting change.   

Feminist funders like Foundation for a Just Society have consistently championed this approach. As its director of programs, Maitri Morarji, explains: “Flexible multi year support allows grantees the ability to be adaptive. When the political context or other things change at the local level, they have the ability to adapt how they’re using their funds to address emergency needs.”

 

4. Shift power along with resources

Whether contributing $100 or $10 million, donors and funders of all kinds must actively acknowledge, and work to disrupt, their own power. Philanthropists should show up with solidarity: listening deeply to feminist movement makers, acknowledging privilege, and unlearning habits and perspectives that centre themselves over those doing the work. As Equality Fund Co-CEO Jessica Houssian says: “We must ensure that we are not simply shifting resources but shifting power in meaningful and durable ways, most especially to women, girls, and non-binary people who have been pushed to the margins.” As funders, we should lean into participatory practices that give frontline feminist leaders greater say in how resources are distributed. And we should target organizations and leaders who have been historically underfunded—breaking through deep patterns of bias that leave many of our most innovative changemakers in a perpetual cycle of underfunding.

Funders like FRIDA have long served as a model for others, showing what it looks like to put values and vision into daily practice. Its participatory grantmaking process shifts decision-making power into the hands of young feminists themselves. 

 

5. Let feminist movements lead 

Feminist movements are already leading, but the world keeps putting barriers in their way. All around the world, feminist movements are reducing gender inequality, weaving lasting peace, expanding economic and social rights, fighting climate change, and securing a just future for all. Yet the expertise of grassroots women’s organizations and activists is routinely dismissed and sidelined. Governments, for example, often pay lip service to women peace builders—but then claim they are unable to find enough “qualified women” to appoint to positions of authority to lead peace processes. This systemic refusal to follow the leadership of women—and feminist movements—is baked into powerful institutions across every sector. 

Riya William Yuyada, co-founder of Crown the Woman South Sudan, a grantee partner of the Equality Fund,  offers a powerful perspective: “My prayer and wish is to see a better South Sudan where women are respected, where women are able to be part of the decision making in our country, where women don’t have to beg to be part of the leadership.”

As we mark Gender Equality Week, the most important collective step we can take is to finally let feminist movements lead us forward with the authority, solidarity, and respect they deserve.

 

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