Wed, Mar 11, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Grassroots women’s groups find they must go it alone

Despite rhetoric on gender equality and growing awareness of the benefits of investing in women and girls, the impetus is not being translated into funding for women’s organizations around the world

By Clar Ni Chonghaile  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Under a twinkling chandelier in a gilded room at the Irish embassy in London, Binti Ali Kiza walked slowly to the podium. She looked nervous and cold, despite the blanket over her shoulders and the woolen cap on her head, but her voice was firm as she said: “This is the voice of a grassroots woman.”

The Kenyan activist had flown from her home on the humid Indian Ocean coast to take part in a Women in Power event organized by UN Women and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to celebrate International Women’s Day.

As world leaders debate what to include in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will define the global agenda for the next 15 years, there is much talk about the need for gender parity. There is much talk about giving women like Kiza a voice in global decisionmaking.

However, if talk is cheap, then the actual support given to women’s groups, like Kiza’s Sauti Ya Wanawake (“the Voice of Women”), seems cheaper still.

Kiza has been an activist for 15 years, working with local communities to encourage women to fight for their rights and helping victims of gender-based violence.

“We have faced many challenges,” she told the ambassadors, heads of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and young volunteers in London. “Those who don’t accept what I am doing say I am a home-breaker, I don’t respect our culture, or ‘Who are you to speak to a man?’”

“I have to stay in my office all day and there is no furniture or fans. I have been left with no money to feed my family... When women have nowhere to go, they stay in my house,” she said.

Tracking humanitarian funding for gender equality and women’s rights programs is difficult — the markers that exist capture only some of the data.

Campaigners say this information gap hinders the development of efficient policies, exacerbates coordination problems and sidelines women’s groups.

Jessica Cruse, a 25-year-old volunteer with the International Citizen Service who worked with VSO on a sexual and reproductive health project in Zambia, has seen this lack of funding firsthand.

“There were times when ... the local organization just ran out of funding,” she said, adding that local directors often paid for activities out of their own pockets.

Cruse said a lack of trust, sparked by reports of corruption, sometimes scared donors off.

“All organizations are painted with the same brush, but grassroots organizations have the expertise and the local knowledge. Yet nobody is investing in them monetarily... It’s a true shame and it’s counterproductive,” she said.

This anecdotal evidence is mirrored in more empirical studies.

Emily Esplen, lead policy analyst on gender equality and women’s rights at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Co-operation Directorate, conducted a study on funding to gender equality in fragile contexts and found only 1 percent of gender equality-focused aid to fragile states in 2012 to 2013 was channeled to women’s groups.

“There is not enough support, financial or other, for women’s organizations that are often doing fantastic stuff at the grassroots level with very little support,” she said.

Angela Salt, the director of VSO in the UK, said women often used funds more effectively and had different priorities from men.

“Women are often the ones who have to go and get the water. They are going to think differently about how close the well is. Women are often the ones that do healthcare and childcare, so when it comes to setting the district budget or regional budget, they are going to prioritize the funding of healthcare more, perhaps, than their male counterparts,” she said.

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