It has almost become a donor mantra: invest in women and girls. But the vast majority of international aid is allocated without a feminist analysis, and that’s a problem.
Feminist analysis is about more than gender equality. A truly feminist approach uses a power analysis, works to address the root causes of inequalities, acts in solidarity with other marginalised identities, speaks out against all forms of oppression, and challenges one’s own use of power in daily practice.
The Fund for Global Human Rights and Inter Pares recently conducted a series of gender and feminist audits with ten civil society organisations working in Burma to learn more about building feminist movements and supporting systemic change. This process revealed a number of critical insights and key lessons – outlined in a new report, Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Gender Justice and Feminist Practice in Burma. Although the initiative focused specifically on Burma, the documented power dynamics are global – and the report’s recommendations are broadly applicable for donors, funders, and activists around the world.
A feminist approach to funding must consider the specific historical context of a country. Too often, when a crisis unfolds, new actors rush in – donors and civil society alike – without grasping the roots of the problems. There is a critical need to understand the power dynamics and systems of oppression that can be exacerbated by ill-informed resourcing.
The specific challenges in Burma tell us something about how these dynamics matter in other countries. When the Rohingya genocide hit the headlines, too few stakeholders understood Burma’s long history of ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation, Islamophobia, and military impunity. There were extreme cases of ignorance, like the donors who funded groups that purchased sharp farming tools for communities without farms in Arakan State, where thousands of Rohingya were maimed. Less extreme examples include donors who turned a blind eye when their partners claimed that Rohingya are not from Burma, or the donors who refused to publicly say Rohingya – reinforcing the denial of the Rohingyas’ citizenship rights and of their dignity of self-identification.
Donors that supported Indigenous women’s organisations in Burma, on the other hand, contributed to opening space to condemn the violence. Indigenous women’s groups have spoken out on the most difficult, high-risk, and contentious issues. They’ve raised their voices against ongoing abuses at the hands of the military and highlighted the scourge of sexual violence. They’ve led advocacy efforts to recognise the impacts of Burmese government policies on human trafficking. They’ve brought to light military connections to big development projects which have resulted in mass displacement and increases in the frequency of human rights violations in ethnic areas. And when they heard from Rohingya women, despite the risks, they spoke out in solidarity.
Based on our experience, if you want to see tangible impact on structural change, look to the feminists in the movements at the grassroots level.
Globally, widespread attacks on civic space present a particularly grievous threat to feminist activism. Donors must be conscious of this reality and make efforts to ensure security in tandem with international commitments to aid transparency. Organisations working to address structural changes face specific risks, and often need to adapt their modalities.
In Burma, as with many countries, many groups choose to base their operations just outside the country’s borders. These organisations are outspoken critics and work toward structural change, but their efforts remain disproportionately underfunded. This lack of support for cross-border programming magnifies inequalities in communities that are already marginalised and makes it harder for much needed critical feminist voices from border-based organisations to be heard.
Feminist funders should not neglect service provision. Too often, women’s rights organisations feel scrutinised by human rights donors, who dismiss service provision as outside the scope of human rights and will not fund the staff costs required for service provision. Services like safe houses, counselling services, drop-in centers, and health centers provide women’s groups a critical tie to their communities and create space for public education on women’s rights issues and an evidence-base for advocacy.
Finally, everyone in the activist space can do more to address burnout by valuing and investing in the wellbeing of staff. Funders, in particular, can encourage and fund psychosocial support, other healing practices, and basic wellbeing benefits as identified by the organisations and their staff. Funders should also facilitate discussions, especially with leadership, on the need and strategies for staff wellbeing.
Fundamental structural change addressing the root causes of social, political, and economic inequalities requires the funding of feminist movements. New dynamics between donor and recipient are needed for the realisation of gender justice. The field of philanthropy needs to move away from the charity model and towards one that acknowledges interdependence. A new relationship is possible with mutual accountability, the sharing of self-reflections, as well as critical analysis and response to the power dynamics of donor and change-agent.
Lisa Houston and Ginger Norwood are consultants and authors of the report Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Gender Justice and Feminist Practice in Burma. Patrick Pierce is a Southeast Asia Programme Officer at the Fund for Global Human Rights, and Rebecca Wolsak is a Programme Officer at Inter Pares.