An unstable political situation and constant violations of human rights is a fertile atmosphere for emergency situations to arise, but also offers an opportunity for responsible philanthropists to act and react. Most readers would agree probably that the most important components of philanthropy and grantmaking support are to be alert, to be timely, to be aware of context and to make sure you address the real needs of people on the ground.
As long as I’ve been involved in this field, being aware of context and recognizing women’s human rights activists’ autonomy has always been a starting point for feminist philanthropy. In Serbia, the context is full of ‘provocations’, which create a need for human rights activists and funders to be alert and react promptly – a need we at the Reconstruction Women’s Fund seek to meet in the context of women’s rights.
For instance, several months ago, another blacklist of civil society organizations was published by a right-wing organization that has a lot of sway in society and that recruits young people for the purpose of demonstrating and advocating hatred and violence towards everyone and everything different. Paradoxically, the blacklisted organizations are known in Serbia for their human rights work and peace activism over the past 20 years. It’s not a coincidence that several of these blacklisted organisations were feminist organizations.
Aggressive campaigns like the above-mentioned blacklist are not unusual. Recently, a media campaign and petition was launched calling for the dismissal of the Commissioner for Protection of Equality — an independent and autonomous state authority working to end discrimination— as conservative forces believed that she was somehow favouring minority social groups, like LGBTQ people.
It is not only through public campaigns that human rights have been put challenged. Last year, the Ministry of Justice tried to reduce penalties for paedophilia, rape and human trafficking crimes – an attempt that was stopped by the intervention of women’s human rights organizations.
Some years ago, the celebration of the 100th anniversary of 8 March, International Women’s Day, was banned. Officials explained their decision basically to deny people their right to peaceful assembly by saying that the peace march would disturb public transportation and endanger health and security of people and property. In response to this ban, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund supported a street action called ‘Free citizens, never servants’, together with over 50 civil rights organizations.
Why rapid reponse grants are an important funding strategy
There are situations when an urgent reaction is needed – by activists and by funders. The Reconstruction Women’s Fund acts accordingly through our Rapid Response grants programme. Prompt, timely support brings attention to violations of human rights where and when needed.
For instance, in a local privatized factory that was going through a process of voluntary redundancy, management decided to give women less severance pay than their male colleagues – despite them doing the same job and having the same work experience. In response, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund funded activists to organise a roundtable that called the public’s attention to this case, aiming to prevent this from happening in other factories and to stop further discrimination in this particular factory. As a result, the Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Policy declared that this had been a case of discrimination and that the owner of the factory had to change his decision.
Our rapid response support, like that shown above, also creates an important opportunity for the general public to engage with human rights activism. We engage with the public in non-violent support for democracy, civic freedom and human rights as well as against gender-based, ethnicity-based or any other discrimination, and against the spread of fear and insecurity more generally.
Since 2005, in partnership with the Urgent Action Fund, a global women’s fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women’s human rights activists at critical moments, we have been making small grants intended to facilitate a short-term intervention in the course of a long-term strategy for the advancement of women’s human rights. We make grants in cases of unanticipated and time-sensitive situations and are able to respond to urgent requests within 72 hours. We opened the program to offer a point of stability for activists. It shows that we work from within the local context and care about activists’ community and wellbeing.
Our Rapid Response grants programme sets a precedent in the Serbian donor environment, as it is currently the only programme of its kind here. Our ability to receive a wide range of requests and process these grants quickly also stands in stark contrast to the majority of donors and international organizations that decide their own priorities and have a slower turnaround.
Beyond providing financial support, our grants also send a public message that we are taking an active stand against injustice and disruptive reality. To read more about our work in this area, our Rapid Response grants programme was featured as a case study in the ‘Small Money, Big Impact‘ report by Foundations for Peace.
Capacity support is important to sustaining human rights movements in Serbia
From our grantmaking over the past nine years we have learned that to be responsible funders, providing technical and capacity support in terms of knowledge and skills improvement, networking and cooperation of women’s groups as well as financial support is crucial.
Together with women’s groups working in various areas, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund is helping to organize campaigns, discussions and educational programmes. These cover issues like resisting conservative tendencies, addressing the insufficent implementation of women’s human rights, and protection of women’s groups and women activists, as well as preventing their isolation. All editions, films and publications that have been supported by the fund are used as educational materials by various women’s groups and the wider public.
We believe that this type of support contributes to the sustainability and autonomy of civil society organizations, which is a necessary precondition for strengthening movements. These social movements in Serbia are endangered by cycles of financial gaps, increased administrative demands by the government, and oftentimes stringent requirements and bureaucracy from governmental and international donors.
A local funder that is in it for the long haul
As a local foundation, Reconstruction Women’s Fund shares and lives the same reality as its grantee partners. Donor trends come and go, but everyday life doesn’t stop. Unlike many donors that were (and still are) withdrawing from the Balkans, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund will stay. Politicians can change parties, suits and hairstyles, they can smile more and speak less loudly, but, as Zarana Papic wrote 12 years ago: ‘It is absolutely obvious that oblivion will always happen. Oblivion is possible. All these women’s initiatives and the participation of the women’s groups in the predemocratic period very easily can be forgotten. In the institutional domain, a new order can be easily established in which women will be unimportant. Learning to act differently in new circumstances is extremely important.’
Mirjana Mirosavljevic Bobic is executive director of the Reconstruction Women’s Fund, the only local women’s foundation in Serbia. Through its programmes, the fund supports activities pertaining to the fulfillment of women’s human rights, academic and activistic exchange, pacifist/anti-militarist engagement, cooperation and solidarity. Since it started working in 2004, the RWF has given a total of 89,429,622 RSD (approximately US$1,299,615) to 503 women-led projects in over 40 towns in Serbia. The fund is a member of International Network of Women’s Funds. This article is part of a series posted by Mama Cash sharing the perspectives of the local and regional funds that are its grantee-partners.