written by Jess Tomlin, Co-CEO, Equality Fund
Marking International Women’s Day earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres lamented that progress on gender equality is ‘vanishing before our eyes.’ We agree. There are so many disturbing signs. The Taliban’s aggressive moves against women and girls. Restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland, the US, and around the world. High rates of maternal mortality, girls being forced into early marriage, and rape and sexual violence used as weapons of war.
Against this backdrop, Canada has been a bright spot, offering leadership and standing up for gender equality. In 2017, when Canada broke new ground by adopting the Feminist International Assistance Policy, it was celebrated by people working for gender equality across the globe. And it contributed to a wave of new momentum. Since then other countries have followed suit, adopting feminist foreign policies and development assistance policies. Just this month, for example, Germany announced an ambitious feminist foreign policy of its own.
In this landscape of growing threats and opportunity, Canada’s leadership is more consequential than ever before. A new report from the Auditor General affirms the urgent need for Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, while calling for improved systems to capture and report its results. This is exactly the time for Canada to double down on its support for a strong FIAP, implement the recommendations in the Auditor General’s report, capitalize on growing momentum, and recommit to this work in the critical years ahead.
Key Steps Forward
Serving as both a potent symbol and a concrete force for change, Canada’s FIAP is improving lives, creating critical new conversations, and inspiring new partnerships for equality and lasting change.
- The Women’s Voice and Leadership Program is delivering $150 million to fund local women’s organizations holding the line on rights, freedom, democracy, and justice. A comprehensive evaluation found that WVL’s ambitious program approach has been successful in making its feminist vision a reality. WVL projects delivered critical resources to women’s rights organizations representing diverse constituencies, including human rights defenders, survivors of gender-based violence, Indigenous women, domestic or migrant workers, women with disabilities, and more.
- FIAP’s landmark $300 million investment in the Equality Fund has unleashed a new model for change on the world stage. Leveraging government, philanthropy, and investment capital together, the Equality Fund expects to activate $1 billion for feminist movements working across the globe. Major new partnerships with the Ford Foundation and the United Kingdom serve as hard evidence of growing momentum.
- Canada’s leadership has been critical to the launch of the Alliance for Feminist Movements, an unprecedented collaboration of government, philanthropy, civil society, and feminist funds to support and amplify feminist movements working around the world. This global advocacy effort is marshaling new resources and shared momentum for feminist change across the world.
- With the explicit use of “feminist,” the FIAP serves as a beacon of bold progress and a call to action, raising expectations, and setting new markers for staff at GAC, the Canadian international development sector, and globally. It has challenged, inspired, and fortified the efforts of practitioners, policymakers, and governments across continents.
We’re starting to see results
The Equality Fund is one of the FIAP flagship initiatives. With three years of grantmaking under our belt, the Equality Fund’s more than 300 women and girl-led partners working in 85 countries are part of the story of how FIAP is making a difference:
- Women’s rights organizations are securing changes in policies and laws. For example, In Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Sarajevo Open Center convinced three cantons—self governing, autonomous entities with their own legislatures—to adopt Gender Action Plans, a set of comprehensive and inclusive measures to improve all areas of life and work for women and LGBTQI+ people. Along with bold measures for gender equality, they offer clear plans to reduce discrimination among LGBTQI+ people.
- Women, girls and LGTBQI people are receiving supports as they recover from violence. For example In Jamaica, EVE for Life has launched innovative new programming for young women and girls who are living with HIV and/or are survivors of sexual violence. Their staff and mentors coordinate an array of essential services such as psychosocial counseling, financial assistance, nutritional support, housing assistance, and access to health care/clinics. In Cameroon, a self-led group of Indigenous Mbororo women known as Forum Des Femmes Autochtones du Cameroun supports girls who are fleeing early and forced marriages or experiencing displacement due to conflict. Its young Ambassadors program ensures that girls can advocate for the end of early marriage in their own voices and on their own terms.
- Urgent support is reaching women and girls in crisis and conflict settings. In the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion, the Equality Fund has worked quickly to resource groups with deep local relationships, like the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and FemFund Poland, who have mobilized to support women-led organizations to respond to protect the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ activists in the region.
Challenges and pushback
Like other new and ambitious policy agendas, the FIAP has faced challenges. Its biggest hurdle so far? Lack of investment. Feminist policies require resources, and the ODA budget remains far too low. That’s why 77 of Canada’s leading international aid agencies have come together to call for Canada to increase international aid beyond last year’s $8.15 billion envelope and to commit to a predictable, three-year increase to reach $10 billion by 2025.
The implementation of FIAP also has room for improvement, and the Auditor General’s report released today includes important recommendations, particularly around improving information management practices and reporting on results. To be clear, the report does not question the need for the policy itself; rather, it recommends improved systems to capture its impact.
Keeping the promise: A bold path forward for Canada
In a world of overlapping crises and rising threats to gender equality, human rights and democracy, now is exactly the time for Canada to lean into its leadership. This is the moment to harness all of the hard work and investment to date and strengthen the FIAP’s implementation. While the FIAP is needed now more than ever before, Global Affairs Canada needs to take steps to ensure the promise of the FIAP is realized.
How can it meet the promise?
- Renewed commitment: It begins with renewed commitment to the ambitious vision of the FIAP. When the FIAP was first introduced, many spoke about the challenges of getting a large bureaucracy to refocus and change direction. Institutional changes take time. Developing new processes to support feminist results and clear reporting require patience as well as trial and error. As the AG report outlines, stronger information management practices are essential. In order to deliver on the ambition inherent in the FIAP, sustained investments over years are required.
- Strong vision: With a strong vision, the FIAP can advance a more transformational agenda. That means, for example, investing in efforts that have the potential to change the structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality. This must address such variables as cultural norms, discrimination, economic inequality, political processes, and institutionalized gender inequities. Critically, policy implementation must also reflect input and advice from local women’s organizations, as well as from individuals who have lived the experience of inequality.
- Sharp intersectional lens: The AG report also outlines the need for a sharper analysis that incorporates a truly intersectional lens. That means understanding, for example, that gender justice, LBGTQI justice, racial justice, and environmental justice are inherently linked—and designing programs to match. Fortunately, there is already powerful momentum. Thanks to the FIAP, our Women’s Voice and Leadership – Caribbean program is demonstrating what an intersectional analysis looks like in action, with an inclusive approach to gender equality that has LGBTQI+ rights, realities, and analysis baked into its core. In Guyana, for example, Tamùkke Feminist Rising launched the MIND Fund, a powerful new resource that connects LGBTQI+ women to professional mental health counselors and covers the cost of their treatment.
- Staff capacity building: Grounded in such a bold vision, improved capacity building for staff will also prove essential. It is important for GAC to ensure that staff have the tools, training, and knowledge they need to translate an intersectional and transformative feminist vision into concrete action.
- Reporting and accountability: Finally, improved reporting and accountability structures are key. At the Equality Fund, we witness the groundbreaking impact of the FIAP every day, but these gains have been harder for people across Canada—and the world— to see. Not enough structures are in place at GAC to systematically track investments, capture FIAP’s impact, assess its progress, and share it with the world. This is fundamental to accountability and transparency. And it is essential to telling the story of FIAP to the world at a time when it desperately needs to hear it.
Since Canada’s FIAP was announced in 2017, the world itself has undergone dramatic upheaval. A pandemic disrupted the globe, while turning back the clock on decades of gains in gender equality. Threats to democracy and freedom found new momentum.
Through all of this, the FIAP was born—and has endured. It has faced challenges, setbacks, and dramatic breakthroughs: all the signs of an ambitious policy finding its roots and growing into its full vision. By experimenting with new practices and ways of working, GAC has made important progress, and now is the time for more.
At the Equality Fund, we are committed to sharing the stories of this work across the world, amplifying the work of feminist movement leaders who are using these critical resources to change laws, transform norms, shift power, secure peace, and build a more sustainable, thriving, and joyful future for all.
Activists the world over know that building feminist change takes time. Demonstrating results is challenging in a 3-year project cycle. But long-term, transformational change is exactly what our world needs most. Canada’s leadership has already set an important marker for the world, showing what is possible when bold action is grounded in a firm feminist North Star. With a strong recommitment to the FIAP and its implementation, Canada can step up once again as a beacon of progress for other countries across the world.