Strengthening Feminist Funding During COVID-19 and Beyond

Written by Beth Woroniuk

Out of necessity, feminist organizations around the world are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

In Lebanon, they are providing emergency services and reaching the ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are using community radio to amplify critical health messages. Sex workers in Senegal are providing support and emergency equipment to front-line members facing further stigmatization and violence.

How the COVID-19 crisis threatens feminist organizations

Social distancing measures and lockdowns means no meetings, no public discussions, and no physical gatherings. Movement-building has to take on new and innovative forms. These measures pose additional difficulties, even dangers. Remote working or “working from home” is often impossible given lack of broadband, unreliable electrical connections, and crowded living conditions. Curfews and closures restrict movement. Domestic violence rises and ‘home’ is not a safe place for many. Increased caring responsibilities are shouldered primarily by women. For informal workers and those reliant on daily labour to feed their families, shutting down the economy means starvation. Security forces enforcing lockdowns lead to the militarization of communities and denial of human rights.

Of particular concern are women, girls, and non-binary people at the margins. LGBTQ+ groups report increased discrimination in seeking medical attention and attacks on their rights. Women in refugee camps worry how hygiene standards can be maintained when clean water is in short supply or non-existent. Disability activists are working hard to ensure that health messaging reaches everyone. Women peace-builders are doing triple duty: pushing for ceasefires, helping families meet basic needs and raising awareness of the coronavirus. Migrants without proper documentation worry about accessing health care and fear deportation if their situation is made known.

In a recent webinar, Anita Bhatia (Assistant-Secretary-General and Deputy Director of UN Women) noted that in the current crisis many women’s organizations face extinction. Already working with bare bones funding, many women’s organizations face closure. The trickle of funds that finds its way to women’s organizations may dry up as funders (in particular bilateral and multilateral development institutions) re-organize budgets to support health systems strengthening or economic recovery programs that fail to support feminist movements and organizations.

We’re hearing warnings from all sides. A network working with women’s organizations in conflict contexts has had two previously approved funding initiatives put on hold. Canadian development organizations are anticipating significant declines in fundraising for the next two years. International money transfers to activists are becoming more difficult.

Most at risk are organizations working with those at the margins who are often invisible. These are the organizations we heard from first and loudest: LGBTQ+ groups facing new forms of discrimination, women and disability organizations looking to ensure no one misses key health and safety messaging, as well as sex worker organizations trying to get cleaning supplies and safety equipment to their members.

What’s important? Compassion. Trust. Innovation.

In our recent consultations for the ‘Design and Build’ phase of the Equality Fund—led for us by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)—we heard over and over the importance of relationships, solidarity, support, and accountability to feminist movements. In other words, the importance of shifting power and building relationships of trust across the unequal power positions that are inherent in funder/grantee relationships.

Building these new relationships involves feminist leadership and risks. We are inspired by the work of sister women’s funds, including the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and their work on holistic security—integrated strategies for physical, digital, and psychosocial well-being and collective care—of grantee partners and their own staff.

We are learning about trust as we build the Equality Fund. Growing funding relationships that are about more than money requires time and effort. Yet it is absolutely vital. Many of our funders provide us with flexible funding. They trust us to be responsible stewards of their money, confident that we will put it to the best use possible. In turn, this enables us to build strong relationships with our grantee partners. We see how hard they work, their dedication, their knowledge of what is needed, and their courage. We can then support them as they adjust to the coronavirus crises. Long-standing priorities remain valid in the current context.

Time and again we have seen that crisis creates opportunity. When they are resourced, women’s organizations seize opportunities to create shifts—in societies, economies, and communities. We’ve seen this in Nepal with girls advocating to be brought out of the cow sheds (where they were forced to wait out their periods) after the 2015 earthquake. Today young women in Afghanistan are looking to build ventilators out of old car parts.

Recommendations for the global response

The calls for local, national, and international responses to COVID-19 to take gender differences and inequalities in account are gathering momentum. The international community is urged to address increasing gender-based violence resulting from physical distancing and stay-at-home policies, support the care economy, guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health services, and ensure that women’s needs are met in all economic supports and recovery programs. Yet despite the crucial role played by women’s rights organizations in advancing these issues, financing and core support is absent from many of these lists.

Here’s how international and national funders can support women’s rights organizations now and through the recovery phase:

Work with women’s funds (especially those based in the global South). Large funders can support women’s funds who have the systems in place to reach and support women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations. These funders come from the feminist movement and are accountable to feminist actors for the decisions they make. They are committed to strengthening the feminist funding ecosystem that will support progressive emergency response and build towards a more just and equitable recovery.

Build in flexibility when funding women’s rights organizations. For those organizations already funding feminist organizations and initiatives, take another look. The initially agreed ‘project deliverables’ that were so nice several months ago are no longer relevant. Figure out if budgets, work streams, and outcomes can be reworked to adjust to this new reality. Understand that working at 100% capacity is next to impossible as staff are living out the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in their own lives, families, and communities. Ensure that budgets support the holistic security of activists and movements, including digital security.

Listen, listen, listen. Organizations led by the people they serve know what is needed and the best way forward in this moment. International funders must take their lead from women’s rights organizations working on the ground. Early warnings across the African continent came from women’s rights organizations. They are often the ones drawing attention to the needs of those most at the margins and those most likely to be excluded from mainstream responses.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini explains why women’s peace-building organizations are positioned to address COVID-19 and what international organizations can learn if they support women’s leadership:

They are experts in allaying fears and finding practical solutions, in building community and reaching the most vulnerable, in reminding people of the gendered aspects of this pandemic while raising awareness and working to prevent a rise in violence against women. They are also sensitive to racism and hatred that might arise. They have established local networks and structures and they have access and trust among the people and the authorities. Given their familiarity with local contexts and cultures, they are able to tailor messaging to their local audiences both through online platforms and local media.

Track and report. It is not enough to highlight the relevance of gender-based analysis or gender-sensitive approaches to the coronavirus epidemic. International funders should ‘follow the money’ and provide transparent accounts of what analysis was done, how the response actually met the specific and different needs of women, girls, and non-binary people, and how much money found its way into the bank accounts of women’s organizations. It’s time to reverse the longstanding pattern of talking about gender equality yet failing to support feminist activists.

Set up new and better funding paths. Over the medium term, look to build new programs that get resources into the hands of feminist activists. Funding should provide core, flexible, and predictable resources at significantly higher levels than the current norm—especially in conflict-affected contexts. Substantial new injections of funding are needed to meet the needs of feminist organizations. Breaking old funding restrictions (bureaucratic rigidities, outdated notions of risk, over monitoring, etc.) and finding new ways of working will be needed even more to respond to the post-COVID-19 realities.

Building the ‘new normal’

Right now, there are many urgent needs for support and funding. Chronically under-funded women’s rights organizations are mobilizing around the world to respond to COVID-19. The Equality Fund is mobilizing to support them. We call on others to do the same.

People are already talking about the post-COVID-19 world. How can we build back better? What we fund today will help to shape tomorrow.

Writer Arundhati Roy has likened this pandemic to a portal or gateway between one world and then next. She challenges us to “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

Our vision of a more just, sustainable, and equitable world—and the pathways to get us there—will be sharper and easier to find if we support not just the survival, but the growth and dynamism of women’s organizations and feminist movements now and into the future.

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