Worldwide, there is an astonishing lack of interest and money specifically committed to helping women. The results of this neglect by funders and governments have been little short of catastrophic in an era when there is clear evidence that for millions and millions of women things have got worse on an epic scale. Against this background the women’s funds are an interesting option for those who want to help; they provide a piece of the puzzle, but by no means all of it.
The reality is that funders who want to support women have limited options. The vital advocacy groups to embarrass states and cajole them to behave better towards women either don’t exist or are too busy struggling to survive to have a real impact.
The women’s grassroots granting funds have been one of this sector’s rare recent success stories. The idea is an elegant one and holds great charm for those with anything from £5 to £5 million to give. The growing success of the funds is fuelled by the power of the message that small sums of money passing directly to women struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families can change the world.
The UK-based Sigrid Rausing Trust has a clear commitment to these women’s funds. Last year it made grants to four of them; this year it will look at applications from five. The Trust is committed to the idea across all areas of its operation, including human rights and the environment, because the trustees believe that getting money as close to the grass roots as possible is effective.
Don’t confuse simple with cheap
The women’s funds are based on a simple idea, but don’t confuse simple with cheap: they cost a lot to set up and run. I sometimes have the feeling of looking at brilliantly engineered aircraft that require a great deal of fuel to get them airborne. Take the two biggest funds that command the lionesses’ share of the current pot: Mama Cash, based in the Netherlands, and the US-based Global Fund for Women. Looking at their figures for the past few years, the amount spent directly on grants to independent groups is about 60 per cent of their total budget, with the other 40 per cent spent on administration, building panels of advisers, evaluating grants, fundraising, and transferring money around the world. This is fairly typical for grassroots granting funds in other fields as well. Small grants to far-flung corners of the world are expensive to identify, evaluate and pay, given the regulatory standards required and the need to keep the confidence of their donors.
On the other side, gathering money, often in small amounts, is also costly. Doubling or tripling the current budgets of the funds might reduce operational costs, so the message here may well be that fewer really big funds could be more cost-effective than a plethora of smaller ones.
Overall the 17 existing groups that are part of the International Network of Women’s Funds now command roughly $20 million a year. As they say, and I agree: it’s not enough. But what sort of impact is it having?
Helping to raise teenagers
I haven’t yet seen any definitive research on how effective this kind of funding is, so here are some thoughts. The sort of small or smallish grants (typically between $2,000 and $30,000) the women’s funds give can only help existing groups that are sufficiently organized to ask for money and handle it properly. The fact that it tends to come either as a one-off grant or over a couple of years also limits the impact. The funds cannot create groups where there are none, nor can they provide the kind of close support and skill-sharing over 10-15 years that many groups in more difficult areas need.
My feeling is that grants like this work best with groups that have gone through the difficult process of getting themselves started, or have perhaps been supported by international organizations like Kvinna till Kvinna from Sweden, Womankind Worldwide or Akina Mama wa Afrika from the UK. They now have the skills to ask for money on their own behalf, but are not yet ready to approach the international foundations independently. This is essentially helping to raise teenagers – important work, difficult and not to be underestimated.
How effective are the women’s funds?
Another criticism is that these funds are not strategic enough, that throwing limited amounts of cash at a vast swathe of small women’s organizations round the world is by definition ineffective. There have been calls for them to limit their grants much more by topic or region.
A difficulty that faces all grantmakers is balancing the need to be focused against the flexibility to pick up good new ideas. I’m not sure the women’s funds have the balance right, but which funder has? Nevertheless, there may be a case, particularly for the bigger funds, for choosing specialities that play to their strengths, and having the courage to cease funding in fields where others can do better.
The women’s funds rightly argue they are about more than just making grants. They are building a network, with the two mother funds giving medium-sized grants to the smaller national or regional funds, which in turn hand down grants to the grassroots groups. It’s an attractive structure and still under construction. Ultimately, though, networks have to be judged not as pieces of art but by practical results. There’s no point in creating a time-consuming and expensive network unless it delivers more than the sum of its parts.
What about the funds’ aspirations to grow grassroots philanthropy among local donors? Can this method of giving really take root in different cultures and traditions and create a layer of locally sustained funds, or will the smaller funds in fact remain dependent on outside contributions? Again it’s too early to draw conclusions. There are welcome signs – particularly in Nepal, and to some extent in South Africa – that there is a local resonance.
Why women’s funds are needed
The women’s funds clearly have a role to play, but funders need to understand that this is a specific and focused one. The funds’ great advantage is that they offer almost the only way of getting money to small groups specifically aimed at helping women, but they are not the comprehensive answer to the question: how can women’s lives be made better? That needs well-funded, forceful campaigning groups as well, groups that are able to act globally. Where are the advocacy groups for women that have the sort of $20 million plus budgets that the big human rights or environmental groups can command? In any form, they are so thin on the ground in this sector that it’s like playing a piano with only half the notes – though we live at a time when the weight of political, social and judicial abuse against women is colossal.
In China and India, it’s thought that 60 million pregnancies have now been terminated simply because the foetuses were female. Try that sentence out substituting any ethnic or religious group for the word ‘female’, and see how it sounds. Six hundred thousand women a year die unnecessarily in childbirth. In Afghanistan and Ethiopia, more than 90 per cent of women are illiterate. In parts of Africa, women are being infected with AIDS at six times the rate of men. Across large swathes of the world they are seen as chattels, unable to inherit their own property or control their earnings. Sex slavery is one of the fastest-growing global commodities. Judges in British courts still tell female asylum seekers that gang rape is not a form of persecution.
No one knows how many widows there are, but one educated estimate is that a quarter of all adult women are widows; worldwide that would be 400 million. Whole societies treat them with monumental cruelty. To give one example: in the Uzo-Uwani district of Nigeria, new widows are forced to sit on the floor naked for three months with their hands covering their breasts. For 28 days of this incarceration their hands are bound with strips of cloth and they are not allowed to scratch or wash.
And yet there is no global outrage, simply an acceptance that this is how things are, with some mild hand-wringing by NGOs, governments and international institutions.
Why mainstream funding doesn’t work
General funding, by definition, cannot deal with these issues, but that’s exactly what most foundations and governments choose to do. The foundations that continue to sustain a programme of international support specifically for women can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Why is this? One of my favourite stories is of the large Japanese funder that told a vital international programme for women that it had ‘done’ gender and moved on. There is also that useful fall-back phrase ‘gender mainstreaming’ which, with the honourable exception of a small number of northern European governments, too often means that support for women cascades down the list of priorities or simply slips through the net altogether. Thirdly, the impact of 9/11 has diverted interest and funds to anti-terrorism, often at the expense of long-term, low-priority areas like gender.
One result of gender becoming a poor relation is that big projects often fail to take proper account of the poor status of women, which makes them much less effective. How many more lives could have been saved if some of the billions made available for global HIV/AIDS prevention had gone to help give women the power and status to negotiate over sex.
None of this is helped by a sort of coy embarrassment, current in the UK, about being labelled a feminist, coupled with the odd belief that the battle has been effectively won. Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect the leadership and necessary recovery of anger on this, by both men and women, won’t come from Western Europe or North America, but instead from indigenously led groups in Africa, Eurasia and Latin America – precisely the sort of organizations that the women’s funds help to support.
1 For example, to small groups like the New Afghan Women’s Association in Kabul ($3,500) or the Chocolate Women’s Collective in Chile ($1,200).
2 The operational budget of the women’s funds in the global South account for just under $3 million of this.
3 Europe has seen the reappearance of an open-air slave market in Bosnia, where young women are ‘provided’, partly for local UN and NATO staff, or sold on as sex workers and domestic slaves.
4 The European Union and the UN even fail to enforce their own simple policy that all delegations and interim governments should contain a gender balance.
Jo Andrews is the Director of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. She writes here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed are her own. She can be contacted at email@example.com
For more information about the Sigrid Rausing Trust, see http://www.sigrid-rausing-trust.org