Unlocking the expertise of women and girls: philanthropy must recognise their role to drive faster change


Michelle Yue


Here’s an open challenge: I challenge any researcher or economist to find a set of investments with a greater socio-economic return than those in women’s health, power and rights.

According to the World Bank, when women can participate in and benefit from the economy, their countries see increased productivity, higher incomes and improved health and education outcomes.

Yet, despite countless studies, plentiful research and compelling evidence, funders routinely underinvest in the health and rights of girls and women. The reasons are frustrating and create a clear case for what philanthropists can help overcome – a lack of political will, limited resources, and cultural and religious behaviours and norms that facilitate and exacerbate the inequality faced by women and girls in every aspect of their lives. And some governments simply don’t have the resources or aren’t being held accountable for their actions.

This is philanthropy’s sweet spot – philanthropy by design is more agile and more courageous with its funding than governments can be.

And (sadly) there’s plenty of room for philanthropists to invest in this space. Indeed, only 23 per cent philanthropic human rights funding through foundations is focused on women and girls[1].

At the beginning of my philanthropic journey, I supported various issues to understand where I might add the greatest value. As part of my learning journey, I sought guidance in many places and from many people. I eventually joined The Philanthropy Workshop to better understand how to strategically channel my funding.

What became abundantly clear to me is that supporting women and girls has a multiplier effect. Improved outcomes for women and girls also drive positive societal change, economic gains, increased educational attainment for children and better health outcomes for women, their families and their communities.

In addition, I had a stark realisation that I could align my philanthropy, my voice and my business around women’s agency and rights and drive faster change. I do that through my leadership of The Millby Foundation, through my company, The Beam Network, and in my role as Chair of the Freedom Fund’s Council of Advocates.

In fact, the Freedom Fund’s work underscores some of today’s best practices in philanthropy; empower communities to drive the agenda, partner with other funders, listen to advice and guidance from those with lived experience, and fund at the community level.

The Freedom Fund’s philanthropic approach pools funds from large donors including Humanity United, Legatum and Walk Free to support small, grassroots organisations in countries with some of the highest prevalence of modern slavery – girls and women account for 54 per cent of victims according to Walk Free’s Global Estimates of Modern Slavery[2].

The work is pioneering and innovative. It elevates survivors’ voices and leadership, ensuring women can advocate for themselves, in their own words, unscripted by others. Who better to offer advice and discuss the challenges than those with actual experience of the problems we are trying to address – domestic servitude, child sexual exploitation and forced labour. Recognising survivors, especially women, as experts and advisors is unquestionably the right thing to do and done too infrequently.

Programming developed and run by local communities works better. I have invested in the Freedom Fund’s past work in Myanmar, where, despite Covid travel restrictions for many international NGOs, our local partners could continue working with community leaders to share critical anti-trafficking and safe migration messages among social networks, family, friends, co-workers, and neighbours. For example, one partner reported that parents sent their children to China to earn money, including receiving payment for sending their daughters for marriage. After participating in an awareness-raising session, parents decided to keep their children closer to home to make a living on farms and in restaurants so they could monitor their children’s welfare and safety.

Another effective model to shift power to communities is through The Freedom Fund’s Survivor Leadership Fund, which provides trust-based grants of up to $20,000 to survivor-led organisations, mostly women-run, in Kenya, Uganda, Brazil, and Bolivia – and more recently Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. These grants allow small organisations, who would not usually be able to access funding from bigger foundations, to secure much-needed resources.

This model is critical because many donors lack access to frontline communities and stringent rules and requirements often exclude smaller organisations from ever becoming grantees. These grants give survivor-led organisations the money they need to combat modern slavery in their own communities, trusting them to spend it in the ways they believe will have the most impact.

When we make space for people to share their own experiences and offer their advice and guidance, we begin to see communities as the centres of expertise they are. Supporting women and girls to lead gender-specific interventions, including women’s leadership and awareness raising, will challenge gender inequality and discrimination, leading to better protections against exploitation and trafficking. This shift can change how communities are engaged in program design and funding decisions, and questions of who gets funded, what gets funded and how it gets funded.

I’m betting my money that this model achieves greater equity and impact.

Michelle Yue is Co-Founder at The Beam Network, Co-Founder and Chair at The Millby Foundation, and Chair of The Freedom Fund’s Council of Advocates.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, we’ve removed the paywall from our feminist philanthropy issue for the month of March. Click here to access a free digital copy of the issue.

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