International Women’s Day Marks An Unprecedented Crisis In Gender Equality – Investing In Social Impact Work Can Help

Illustration by Paula Champagne
This op-ed was originally published by Future of Good—authored by Andrea Dicks, Jess Tomlin, Jessica Houssian, and Paulette Senior.


As women have disproportionately cared for COVID’s sick, watched over our kids as schools closed, showed up as essential workers, and kept our economies and countries moving, the social and economic gains on gender equality we have worked for decades to achieve are vanishing before our eyes.

This year’s International Women’s Day also brings another milestone: the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s disruption and devastation in communities across the globe.

For women, the sounds of sirens rushing to care for COVID’s sick and dying came just as greater progress on our equality was already flatlining. The Globe’s groundbreaking “Power Gap” series offers the latest evidence, finding that women, especially racialized women, are “outranked, outnumbered, and out-earned” at every level of the workforce.

Now the pandemic threatens to drive those and many other inequities even deeper. As funding organizations dedicated to gender equality, we have been racing to provide a lifeline to those trying to stop the bleeding, delivering rapid-response, emergency funding to organizations working with women, girls, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people bearing the brunt of the pandemic in Canada and across the world.

It’s not enough. While the full toll of the pandemic on the world’s women — whether in Alberta or Accra — is just beginning to come into sight, it’s already clear that we face a crisis of gender equality bigger than any we have seen in our lifetimes. And the very organizations working to preserve women’s rights, economic security, safety, and dignity, already starved for funding, are running out of resources as the demands for their work grow ever more urgent.

This confluence of crises is decades in the making. Since long before the arrival of COVID-19, we have been sounding the alarm about the systemic gap in funding for feminist movements and women’s rights organizations. Still, most of philanthropy’s budgets have not moved. Even as we celebrate historic commitments by the Canadian government to fund feminist movements and gender equality, the broader philanthropic sector has remained on the sidelines. For example, a report released in December 2020 shows that in the U.S., just 1.6 percent of all charitable giving went to organizations dedicated to girls and women.

All the while, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women and girls only deepens the inequality. The UN estimates that the pandemic will push an additional 47 million women into poverty, turning back the clock on decades of progress. In 17 of the 24 OECD countries where unemployment rose in 2020, women were more likely to lose their jobs than men. In just a matter of months in Canada, women’s participation in the labour force fell through the floor, moving from a historic high to its lowest level in over 30 years. Just this week, new research from RBC found that almost half a million Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic hadn’t returned to work as of January, 2021.

Already a crisis, violence against girls and women has become a ‘shadow pandemic’. Throughout 2020, gender-based violence grew as girls and women were confined to their homes. Now, activists expect this violence — including attempted murders and homicides — to rise again as communities open up and women try to leave their violent partners.

At a time when women are putting their bodies on the line for our collective safety, these statistics must be cause for global alarm — and outrage. As women have disproportionately cared for COVID’s sick, watched over our kids as schools closed, showed up as essential workers, and kept our economies and countries moving, the social and economic gains we have worked for decades to achieve are vanishing before our eyes.

There is a solution. Against all odds, women’s rights organizations and feminist movements are still at work here in Canada and in communities around the globe, turning shoestring budgets into promising solutions.

Research shows us that feminist movements play a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights across a wide range of issues, including: violence against women; economic rights, access to childcare, inheritance and land rights; reproductive rights; and political representation. These are the leaders whose activism, organizing, and power building have what it takes to dismantle systems that are centuries in the making. But they need patient, long-term support to bring their solutions to scale. Otherwise, women’s progress will remain reversible, and the next COVID-19 will always be around the corner.

Fortunately, a new wave of philanthropists are beginning to heed the call, realizing that the only way to truly stop the bleeding is to heal the wounds — of historic oppression and entrenched racism, colonialism, and sexism. In 2020, for example, MacKenize Scott moved billions of dollars to organizations focused directly on racial and gender justice. And now other funders are beginning to follow suit, challenging philanthropy to reimagine both how and what it supports in order to shift lasting power to those who are working on root causes.

Our organizations have developed a framework to make it even easier for other funders to move from piecemeal funding to transformational change. These principles for feminist funding outline what it looks like for funders to trust movements, work together to dismantle patriarchal and colonial structures, and build new partnerships for structural change. They also challenge funders to move away from small, highly-restricted grants toward flexible, general operating support that puts more power into movements’ hands.

As the world marks another International Women’s Day, we will see a new round of statements, proclamations, and declarations. But women don’t need more words. Intersectional feminist movements need funding that is multi-year, flexible, and consistent, and builds the longer-term capacity of these front-line organizations.

Second, while commitments are important, we must build on the collaborative nature of feminist movements and work together as equal partners. To overcome the inequities laid bare by the last year, we need an inclusive, collaborative feminist movement that lifts up everyone who has been left behind. This will require donors to question their own traditional funding practices, governments to boldly invest resources in feminist groups leading their own context-driven solutions, and for each and every one of us to use our personal power to urgently support/unlock the power of these movements as if our lives depend on it — because they do.

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