Interview with Musimbi Kanyoro

The Global Fund for Women is now 25 years old. Caroline Hartnell talks to president and CEO Musimbi Kanyoro about its achievements and challenges over that period and her vision for a world in which women no longer have to fight for their rights.

In an interview for Alliance almost ten years ago, I asked Kavita Ramdas, who was then in your job, if there was a global feminist philanthropy movement that Global Fund for Women was part of, and she said, ‘Yes, but it’s still in its emerging stages.’ Has it now emerged? And do you see Global Fund as part of it?

Definitely there is a new and growing feminist philanthropy movement which has amplified women’s voices around the world. During this decade, we have seen more individual support for women and girls. We’ve also seen governments, corporations and communities stepping up their commitment, suggesting increased investment in women and girls. Increased investment has delivered more programmes and more visibility. At the same time, much more funding and political will is needed to enforce gender equality. The causes important to women are still underfunded, which is why we at Global Fund for Women support women organizing so their collective voice can be heard.

A good portion of the funding is directed towards girls’ education programmes and microfinance for small business. Both are important and require ongoing funding. However, if the systems around those kinds of programmes don’t shift significantly, millions of women and girls will fall through the cracks or be left out altogether. So it is of equal importance to create strategies supporting women and girls’ leadership and skills. The global women’s movement, which includes Global Fund for Women, promotes philanthropy that invests in systemic social change which includes the ideas of women who experience exclusion and discrimination.

If you met someone who didn’t know anything about Global Fund for Women, how would you briefly describe to them what you are, what you do and what you stand for?

Global Fund for Women is a publicly supported foundation which invests in women-led organizations advancing the human rights of women and girls. Our grants aim to increase the visibility and influence of the work of women’s rights organizations as they build a strong and connected women’s rights movement. We do this by investing more deeply in approaches and models that are working well in one place and that have the potential to be replicated and scaled in others. This includes supporting coalitions of women’s rights organizations and influencing the approaches and decision-making of governments, the private sector and other social justice movements that profoundly affect the lives of women and girls. It also includes linking and collaborating with other organizations and social networks that can help the women’s movement to extend its influence and increase its impact.

For 25 years, the premise of the Global Fund for Women has been that women are powerful catalysts for change and that strong women’s organizations and movements are crucial to making the transformations that will allow women to realize their rights and participate in creating stronger and safer societies.

Prior to joining Global Fund for Women, you were part of the Population and Reproductive Health Programme at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. How different is it to address issues like reproductive rights through a huge foundation like Packard and through the Global Fund?

The ultimate goals are the same: women, wherever they are, should have access to reproductive health and rights and make their own choices about when to have children, how many and with whom. What is different is that large foundations have the capacity to invest in pilot projects, major programmes, research and infrastructure. They often need large international service organizations, research institutions, governments and even businesses to implement their programmes. Global Fund for Women specializes in incubating women’s ideas and solutions. In this way, we demonstrate that community organizations led by women are important pieces of the puzzle for effective outcomes to social change.

Do you think that the Global Fund approach is more effective?

It’s not a case of one being more and the other less effective: you need both. In terms of, say, family planning, being able to support women directly by ensuring that community attitudes, laws and practices support women’s choices is important. But that is not enough. You need to ensure that there is research to support contraception and that health systems exist and are accessible to women.

Global Fund for Women is also a grantee of many endowed foundations because they know that what we do enhances their success. Our nimbleness allows us to reach groups in hard-to-reach places. We can make grants that might be too small for foundations; yet the yield in those communities may be quite significant. Our support for women’s organizing builds trust. Trust is the most expensive asset to build but it is the stock with the highest return when working on a social and community change agenda.

A recent AWID report suggests that growing interest in women and girls is not resulting in more money for women’s rights. What can be done about this?

We know it’s true because much of the information that informs the AWID study is generated from groups affiliated to the Global Fund. I can give you examples: we make grants to women’s groups in Brazil, Russia, India and even China. These countries are gradually dropping off the ‘philanthropy radar’ and women’s organizations that have sometimes benefited from international aid have lost their funding.

The irony is that mega funding entities such as governments, multilateral agencies and even businesses today affirm the need to support women and girls. Yet they lack the will and confidence to invest directly in local groups and institutions that are committed and have the skills to support those groups. Our experience has given us the knowledge and networks to identify the organizations that are making the greatest advances in the empowerment of women and girls. We have systems of accountability to channel funds to women’s organizations and women’s movements in needy and hard-to-reach places. Like all civil society organizations, women’s organizations need the funding both to protect achieved rights and to continue the struggle for more gender inclusion and better status for all women.

A recent World Bank report makes the point that the biggest barrier to achieving ‘gender equity/equality’ is ‘gender norms’, cultural assumptions about masculinity and femininity. Without changes in these norms, we won’t achieve real change in other areas such as partner violence, reproductive health and education. Do you agree?

Definitely. Even simple things like the images used in films or the language people use can imply a different status for men and women. Changing those norms is hard. One of our priorities is correcting the imbalance between genders. We focus on women and girls but we are aware that men and boys are the other side of the coin and until we get the equation right, we will not have the answer.

What do you see as the Global Fund’s biggest achievements in 25 years?

In 1987, few foundations, governments or multilateral agencies were willing to invest directly in locally led, community-based women’s rights organizations overseas. In response, we have worked in a supportive, trust-based partnership with women’s rights organizations in nearly 200 countries and invested more than $100 million in seeding, networking and strengthening the global women’s movement for social change.

Global Fund for Women was the first institutional funder to more than 700 organizations and a key early funder for hundreds more. It adhered to its core beliefs of trusting and listening to grant partners and providing flexible funding. Specific efforts to reach women and girls who are among the most marginalized and rarely funded, and to seed and grow women’s funds, are further indicators of our successful efforts to transform philanthropy.

The Global Fund has played a notable role in sustaining, linking and/or mobilizing movements in the areas of gender-based violence; reproductive and LBTQI rights; the rights of domestic workers, disability workers, sex workers, indigenous women and rural women; and ending sex trafficking and anti-war/militarism. Notably, we have supported women’s rights organizations engaged in a political struggle to oppose a conservative backlash against advances in reproductive justice.

Overall, I believe that Global Fund for Women has shown that you can trust women; you can build a women’s movement by connecting them; and that when you give flexible, core funding to organizations you allow them to do more for themselves.

If you were looking 10 years ahead, what would you like to see the Global Fund do to build on that achievement?

Both women and the world have changed. Women still need resources for their work but our grantmaking must become even more strategic. Different types of support are critical at various points in an organization’s life: support for innovation at the beginning, grants that strengthen proven concepts, and funds to amplify success. We want to track developments in the women’s movement more strategically, use it to inform our decisions and share it with others. We have embraced telling our grantees’ and our own story using digital technology and social media. This is what the future demands of us.

Organizations need leadership and infrastructure to succeed. With our next $100 million, we will not only do grantmaking, we will also support the capacity of women and their organizations and develop a pipeline of new leaders. We must invest in young women leaders as donors, activists and decision-makers.

Guided by lessons from our past, our grantmaking is now focused in three key areas. First, zero violence against women and girls. A girl shouldn’t be afraid to walk to school. A mother shouldn’t live in fear of soldiers who rape. And no woman should be attacked and beaten because she chooses to love another woman. Our grant partners have helped to pass laws that protect more than a billion women in 29 different countries. We have the skills and experience to scale this work.

The second area is sexual and reproductive health and rights, because women and girls have rights to sexual health, sexual education, sexual choices, sexual autonomy, bodily integrity and birth control technologies. Protection from child marriages, genital cuttings, rape and other sex crimes is an urgent need. Our grant partners fight for the reproductive rights of women and bring maternal healthcare to women, especially in rural areas where the risks from pregnancy and childbirth are highest. We can do more with them.

Third, we will continue to fight for the economic and political empowerment of women and girls. When women are elected to office, societies are more just. When they serve on boards, corporations are more profitable. It’s not just ‘nice’ to empower women. It is smart. It is a human right.

We see these three areas as fundamental. When women enjoy rights in these areas, they, their families, their communities and their societies thrive.  And they are universal. Women around the world experience hardships when any one of these rights is denied. We can have the greatest impact by focusing our resources, financial, human and intellectual, on these three issues beyond 2015 – the Millennium Development Goals have shown how deeply these things are embedded in gender inequality.

Looking back over the past 25 years, are there areas in which you have been disappointed by the lack of progress, things that haven’t happened that you’d hoped for?

Oh, definitely. If we had achieved all the changes that we wanted to, we would close shop and go home. We would love to say, ‘today there is no violence against women…’ but there is. But what’s different is that women don’t have to work in isolation. There is much more connection and ease of communication between them. These are changes that have been positive for women that we should celebrate.

After being very, very concentrated on doing the actual work for the last 25 years, we feel that in future we want to spend more time tracking evidence and gathering information on exactly what is happening to women. We will share this information not only with the women’s movement but also with other interested agencies. That’s going to be an important part of our work.

We also see opportunities for anyone working in the area of raising funds for women. The world has become more conscious of what investing in women and girls will mean, and we want to be part of the movement that gets money for them, not just the very small funds that have been given in the past but much larger funds.

What would be your vision of the world 25 years from now?

I see the world through my grandson, who is three years old now. I want his generation to read about discrimination in history books not as the lead story in the daily news. I want him to live in a world in which there is much more recognition of the benefits of men and women working together to make our world stronger economically and politically.

But it’s a long way off. We see new laws violating people’s rights in many parts of the world from Russia to Nigeria. Violence and conflicts abound. I want to do my part by supporting strong activists who will shape tomorrow’s agenda. I will take care of today in the hope that what we do will create a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Musimbi Kanyoro is president and CEO at the Global Fund for Women.

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