The case for philanthropy to step up with an intersectional approach


Deepa Pawar and Ami Misra


Even in an unprecedented crisis that touches everyone in some way, the most vulnerable communities and individuals are always exposed to harsher realities – something the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic showed.

While delivering services in a critical time of need, difficult questions around power dynamics and systemic inequalities were obvious. For example, during the first lockdown of 2020, only seven per cent of men lost their jobs, compared to 47 per cent of women. During the past two years, as the problems have been exacerbated, especially for the already marginalized – philanthropic organizations have had to do a lot more with limited resources. Currently, as India is emerging from the pandemic, we are at a critical inflection point, where philanthropy has an opportunity to become strategic by applying the approach of intersectionality.

The importance of intersectionality

Intersectionality may be seen as a concept that cannot be easily distilled, but at its core, it is a recognition that no individual, organisation, or community can be summarised into one identity. The concept can be understood intuitively if we reflect by asking the simple question: does who we are affecting how we live our lives? Our circumstances and experiences are an amalgamation of multiple identities that intertwine, overlap, and interact with one another. While some of us may identify as women, we will also be affected by our caste, disability, religion, ethnicity, language, and other specifics.

Taking an intersectional approach to a problem is like looking at Google Maps. Consider the location of your house. It is possible to take a very broad perspective and say it is located in India. But the further you zoom in to your house, more information that is relevant to you begins appearing – your state, your city, your street, and your neighbourhood. While your house is located in India, these additional details start providing valuable insights, such as rent prices (affecting incomes), topography (indicating development) and weather (linking with agriculture or disasters like floods). Altogether, you become aware that your house is not just a dot on a map, but instead a dynamic complex area representing a universe of intermingling coordinates.

Similarly, individuals and communities, cannot be relegated to singularity when we live so diversely!

An intersectional approach to migrant labour

Philanthropic organisations are looking to solve problems in a very complex world. The subject of migrant labour became a headline issue when thousands of workers were forced to migrate back to their hometowns at the onset of the lockdown. The pictures of workers forced to walk on foot, enduring severe difficulties, for reaching their homes left a dent in our collective imaginations of India. However, organisations that looked to intervene and support these labourers realised that meaningfully doing so would require taking an intersectional approach, that looked at the multiple factors affecting their experiences.

For example, an overwhelming majority of 70 per cent of internal migrants are women. Unsurprisingly, it is women migrant labourers who are often unpaid or underpaid. Gender is an important intersection creating layers of disadvantage, in an overarching patriarchal and male-dominated society. In data narratives, women migrants are often invisible as workers, since they are identified as ‘marriage migrants’ and concentrated in sectors like domestic work, agriculture, or construction, where their contribution is uncounted and undermined. It could be a surprise to many that women account for 60 per cent of agricultural labour, a fact that is not represented in much of the imagery around the subject, even in media coverage of the recent farmer protests. Women who migrate for employment are also disproportionately at risk of trafficking, sexual harassment, and violence. Additionally, their identities regarding caste, geographical origin, and disabilities affect their access to opportunities. For example, migrant women from Denotified tribes face increased chances of persecution because they were unfairly notified as criminals, during the British era. Their historical and material marginalization manifests as a complicated socio-demographic status even in present-day free India. Women from the community have difficulties in accessing free education because they often lack requisite identification or documentation, and then cannot find well-paying or dignified jobs.

The benefits of an intersectional approach

As can be seen from an inspection of issues affecting migrant labourers, taking an intersectional approach can provide insights into myriad problems affecting communities. Recognising that discrimination is magnified at certain intersections like caste and gender, is a recognition of the lived realities, narratives, and oral histories of individuals. Migrant labourers face a certain kind of discrimination and migrant women workers experience multiple overlapping layers of discrimination.

The approach of intersectionality can be applied in all sectors. Take healthcare: health outcomes can be affected by demographic indicators like caste, class, gender, and geographical areas based on the access to service delivery. Therefore, when looking to improve a health outcome like maternal mortality, different solutions will be required for an Adivasi woman living in a remote forest area, in comparison to a Dalit woman living in an urban slum. 

Towards a better future, together

By adopting an intersectional approach to philanthropy, it is possible to improve solutions for vulnerable communities. Tenets of applying an intersectional approach to philanthropy are:

  • Forging collaboration at all levels: There needs to be a continuous and open dialogue with communities affected by the problems to not only understand varying experiences across intersections but also for constructing solutions.
  • Supporting proximate leaders: Representation matters and a focus on developing the leadership of Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan communities, disabled, marginalized genders, and other intersections can help build approaches that are truly inclusive.
  • Providing flexible capital to organizations: Solving for intersectional realities requires organisations to invest in innovative and transformative programs that may not deliver on impact numbers nimbly, and therefore accessing patient capital is key.
  • Reflecting on power and privilege: It is important for the philanthropy community to acknowledge and discern that the process of driving social impact belongs to the communities and individuals and that their role is in facilitation, not appropriation.

Since philanthropy is inspired by values of compassion and welfare, it can be an early adopter in driving an intersectional approach that challenges bias and holds itself accountable to the above tenets. Thus, philanthropic organizations can also lead the way for stakeholders like the state, industry, and citizenry, to follow through. Only when intersectionality becomes the norm – India will be able to uphold its constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Deepa Pawar is the Founder and Director of Anubhuti Trust, and Ami Misra is a Manager at Dasra.

Tagged in: Funding practice

Comments (1)

getting over it

Covid-19 has left behind a lot of loss. This is also a warning sign that people need to be more responsible for themselves and the natural environment.

Kedareswar Chaudhury

Nice discussion on intersectionality. Often this aspect is lost in practice of typical programme delivery approach. But the non profit sector is more receptive to the concept and practice of intersectionality in their approach. What is more important that thought process of development stakeholders need to be tuned with intersectionality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *