The global context in which the 2017 Trust Conference took place was particularly challenging. There are many reasons to conclude that we are seeing a global regression in Women’s rights; the US reinstatement of the global gag rule, polarizing politics fuelling conservative views of gender roles, and a universal failure to meaningfully implement much of the women’s rights legislation passed worldwide. Political and economic uncertainty generally seem to be pushing women’s rights off priority lists rather than onto them. So, apart from shout louder, what can we do to combat this gloomy reality?
Throughout the Trust Conference there were a great number of insightful contributions, but two themes were raised time and again which offer hope for those of us wishing to affect change at scale for Women’s rights.
The first was a need to change our narrative; to speak to different people, use different language and look beyond the echo chambers of our social media feeds to form our opinions.
We need to consciously remind ourselves of this and be honest about how much time we spend preaching to the converted. But there is something else we can do – invest more time and money in challenging and transforming harmful gender norms in the media.
It is now widely acknowledged that media both feeds and is fed by social perception, but the difficulty of operating and measuring impact in the space means that media projects are generally underrepresented in the sector.
Media often reinforces gender stereotypes, portraying women in objectified, (male-)dependent and inferior roles. In fact, only 24% of people in the news are women; and just 4% of that news challenges gender stereotypes.
At Womanity, we seek to address this with an online animated fiction series in the Middle East, where a female protagonist provides alternative perspectives on key issues such as female leadership, domestic violence and positive masculinity. Creative ideas for the storyline are crowdsourced online, honed by local artists, activists and media professionals and bitesize episodes complemented by community discussion sessions.
The provision of this kind of alternative, women-driven media content is key in influencing societies to adopt more gender equal behaviours. A great deal more of it is needed if we are truly to create social movements which sweep away old, harmful norms.
The second recurring theme of the conference was partnership; in danger of becoming a buzz word, partnership is oft repeated but not always well implemented.
During the conference Nazir Afzal made the link between gender violence, patriarchy and terrorism, others made the case for women’s empowerment as integral to fighting climate change, to name just a few. No actor can hope to successfully navigate a landscape this complex and interconnected single-handed. Partnership is therefore crucial to affecting long-term change.
Whilst there are many ways that achieving women’s rights would positively affect our future, at Womanity we believe that fighting violence against women is a fundamental enabler. As a result, we have a programme dedicated to preventing violence against women; but crucially the Womanity Award is also built on partnership.
Using a new partnership model which builds upon scattered capacities and combines them to achieve lasting, large-scale change, the biennial award enables two organisations to partner in the fight against gender-based violence. Each partnership lasts three years and allows ground-breaking projects that are already successful in one location, to be expanded, and contextualised elsewhere, to reach and help many more women.
While we are exceptionally proud of the programmes we support at The Womanity Foundation, there is a long way to go before we live in anything remotely resembling gender equal societies. As a sector, we should not be averse to taking risks on new players, new models and new partnerships which might help us get there faster.
In practice, this means making the space for nuanced partnerships in a world of busy schedules and busier inboxes, not just talking about them. It means actually taking the time to co-create solutions with others and challenging the rationale of those who only ever invest or engage in fully tested, fully funded projects.
It means working with potentially difficult-to-access local players to brainstorm and adapt programmes, rather than creating toolkits for multi-country rollout. And it means finding room and funding for these models in the crowded and often competitive world of development.
The changes needed to fully realise the potential of compelling narrative and best in class partnerships are much harder to put into practice than might be supposed. Habits are hard to break, time is hard to find and comfort zones hard to leave.
But I personally found this year’s Trust Conference a testament to courage; the courage of those who spoke out about the trafficking and human rights abuses they had endured, the courage of the pioneers breaking social taboos and the courage that our global community now needs to find to meet the challenge of growing conservatism and populism.
That courage starts with each of us scrutinising how we can make our own narrative and our own partnerships more fit for purpose.
Megan Sullivan is Head of Partnerships at The Womanity Foundation.