The pandemic and its shadow: lessons in standing with women’s rights organisations


Bethan Cansfield and Chiara de Luca


As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, a shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls is emerging around the world. Like many organisations, the Sigrid Rausing Trust’s grantees are sounding the alarm about the rapid and widespread increase in abuse, and telling us how funders can stand with them to respond.

In the 12 months prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 243 million women and girls experienced physical or sexual abuse from a partner. As staggering as this is, data suggests that rates of violence against women and girls are soaring even more during the crisis. In Zimbabwe, Musasa Project, one of the country’s leading organisations providing gender-based violence services, told us it has seen a four-fold increase in calls to its helpline. Similarly, alarming trends can be seen in increasing numbers of disappearances and femicides, especially in Latin America. The Brazilian Public Security Forum reports that 143 women in 12 states were murdered in March and April – a 22 per cent increase over the same period in 2019. The escalation of abuse is so alarming that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a ‘ceasefire’ in homes.

In response, women’s rights organisations have quickly mobilised to expand and adapt their survivor-centred protection and psychosocial services. ‘Serbian state institutions managed to respond to 30 per cent of all the requests for help during lockdown,’ said Jelena Hrnjak from Atina, a Serbian NGO supporting refugee and migrant women. ‘The remaining 70 per cent was borne by service providers, which do not receive any aid from the state’. These organisations and movements have also been tirelessly campaigning for governments to recognise and respond to the gendered impact of lockdowns.

Despite the important role played by these organisations and movements, OECD figures from 2016-17 show that a meagre one per cent of all gender-focused aid went to women’s organisations. Many are operating on shoestring budgets. Recent figures from Mama Cash and the Astraea Foundation shows nearly 40 per cent of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer (LBQ) groups have an annual budget of less than $5,000.

During the pandemic, there is a very real possibility that women’s rights organisations could face further reduced funding at a time of greatest need. Many fear that organisations doing vital work will not only be unable to respond but may disappear altogether. As noted by Tatiana Cordero, from Urgent Action Fund Latin America, ‘the pandemic and the multiple crises we are living through are asking us to think about the immediate emergencies, but also about how to ensure the future sustainability of civil society organisations and movements’.

Women’s funds and private institutions have been providing rapid response grants, and loosening application and reporting requirements in response to the needs and complexities caused by the pandemic. Likewise, for the first time in our 25-year history, the Sigrid Rausing Trust has launched a multi-million pound emergency fund for existing grantees. We want to share lessons learnt from this experience in the hope that these are helpful to other donors.

Historically almost all of the Trust’s funding has been flexible and unrestricted. As Covid has changed the landscape so dramatically and at such scale, we recognised that grantees need additional resources at this time. We have therefore given additional emergency grants to enable grantees to respond to issues compounded by Covid or to meet Covid related expenses such as technology to allow homeworking. We have also supported them to mitigate temporary funding gaps where other anticipated funds have been delayed or in some cases redirected due to the pandemic.

We have learned a great deal from administering this fund. Our first lesson has been to allow maximum flexibility for the application process for the emergency fund. This has meant grantees do not need to submit an application form but can provide their application in the most suitable way for them, including in the body of an email. We encourage short applications, which can be submitted in languages other than English.

Another lesson has been to shorten decision-making processes. After the first rounds of applications to the Covid emergency fund, we knew we wanted to intensify the pace of decision-making. We have since taken steps to access applications more regularly and there are fewer steps for a grant approval. This has decreased the time between receiving the application and being able to communicate a decision. It is an ongoing challenge for staff of a small, busy Trust, we need to continue to balance prioritizing emergency grants with our regular grant-making.

The pandemic has also reinforced the need to listen to women’s rights organisations and movements. In Lebanon, following the outbreak of Covid and the Beirut explosion, our grantee Fe-Male (a feminist campaigning organisation) decided it was critical to deliver some direct services, including art and sports therapy, and distributing sanitary products. ‘It is important that donors listen to organisations and movements and take their lead on how contexts are changing and the ways funding needs to adapt,’ Co-Director Hayat Mirshad reflected. She also called for ‘quality funding to continue after the pandemic finishes.’

The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to set back women’s rights in profound and long-term ways. As donors, we must all face the challenges of Covid and invest ambitiously in women’s rights organisations and movements, adapting funding models to be more agile and ensuring those delivering life-saving work receive the core, long-term funding they need.

Bethan Cansfield and Chiara de Luca are Programme Officers in the Women’s Rights Programme at the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

Comments (1)

Elizabeth Rowley

Thank you for sharing these experiences, and for making emergency funds available for this important work. It's great to hear about donors responding openly and flexibly, based on priorities voiced by groups like Musasa Project, in order to provide critical immediate services. Really happy to read this.

Leave a Reply

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