Women’s rights funding under pressure at UN

By Liz Ford  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 - Page 9

The US, Russia and Caribbean states are trying to water down wording that calls for increased funding for women’s organizations in the draft document under discussion at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

In a paragraph of the document urging governments to “increase significantly resources for grassroots, national, regional and global women’s organizations to promote and advance women’s rights,” the US wants the phrase “women’s organizations” replaced with the term “civil society organizations.” Together with Russia and the Caribbean states, which are collectively negotiating as the CARICOM group, the US also wants to temper the phrase “significantly increase” by writing “provide” or “support” instead.

The amendments may appear small, but women’s rights campaigners say such details make their work harder. The inclusion in the commission outcome document of a specific reference to funding women’s organizations could improve future funding prospects and could also be included in the sustainable development targets that will replace the Millennium Development goals when they expire next year. The commission outcome document will be seen as the policy position for women’s rights in high-level debates about post-2015 development on the issue.

“I’m not against broad recognition of civil society organizations, but for women’s rights organizations it’s difficult to access funding at the best of times,” said Lee Webster, head of policy at the NGO Womankind, who will be lobbying the UK delegation at the UN commission to resist attempts to modify the language.

Zohra Moosa, director of programs at women’s fund Mama Cash, said altering the text “takes away from our agenda for direct finance and resources.”

Women’s rights organizations are severely underfunded. Their work is often focused on long-term transformational change, such as campaigning for revisions in legislation, but that may not attract funders keen on short-term results that can be measured by the number of schools built or education scholarships awarded.

A global survey of 740 women’s organizations conducted in 2010 by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, found these groups had an average annual income of just US$20,000. Their total income combined was just a fraction of that of big charities, such as Save the Children or Greenpeace. One-fifth of the organizations said they feared being shut down due to financial shortfalls.

The association said the research confirmed that “most women’s organizations are significantly under-resourced given the enormous challenges their work aims to address.”

However, projects supporting women and girls are increasingly attracting big corporations such as Coca-Cola, Exxon and Intel, as well as philanthropic organizations. A recent examination of 170 corporate initiatives aimed at women and girls, conducted by the association, Mama Cash and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, found that US$14.6 billion was pledged between 2005 and 2020.

About half of these initiatives are based in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority focus on economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, women’s health and girls’ education. Very little is given to programs promoting human rights or peace.

The huge sum pledged appeared to contradict the figure of US$20,000 cited above in the survey by the association, but it is important to understand where and how the money is being spent, association program coordinator Julia Miller said.

“Often the narrative is simplistic, with an emphasis on how providing someone with a resource is to catalyze change,” she said at an event at the UN Commission on the Status of Women exploring funding for the Development Goals. “In health care, for example, there’s a lot of focus on access to prenatal care or building clinics. These are valuable, but if you don’t look at the structural issues behind it, such as if legislation on sexual and reproductive health and rights are being rolled back or budgets being cut, these gains will be lost.”

According to the research, more than 60 percent of the private sector partnerships involve NGOs that do not explicitly identify themselves as women’s organizations Only 9 percent of projects provide direct funding to women’s organizations. The report New Actors, New Money, New Conversations said that when a company or celebrity was looking for a women’s initiative to support, they went to well-known, larger organizations at the expense of smaller women’s rights organizations. However, failing to seek expertise from those who have been supporting women, often at the grassroots level, for years “may not only have limited results, but be counterproductive.”

The study indicated that the increasing role of the private sector in development, and its growing influence in setting funding agendas and priorities, meant it was important for women’s rights organizations to critically engage with corporations.

It added that resources are “urgently needed” to counter the backlash against women’s rights in many parts of the world.

One example of an organization that has engaged with the private sector is ELAS, a women’s fund in Brazil, which is working on a project with Chevron.

Kelly Kotlinski Verdade, program manager for ELAS, told the UN commission that lack of international funding and philanthropic giving in Brazil have forced women’s rights organizations to look to the private sector for money.

Yet ELAS initially turned down a US$1 million funding offer from Chevron due to the company’s environmental record. In 2011, however, Chevron and ELAS launched the Women in Motion program, helping women in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere to develop their businesses.