‘Don’t turn us into projects’

Report of the session, ‘Where is the funding for women’s rights?’ convened by Positive Young Women Voices and Salamander Trust at the Women’s Networking Zone 2020, Wednesday July 8 #FeministFuturesHIV

To watch the recording of the session click here. To see the Twitter moment, click here. Read our blog about funding for women’s rights here.

Panellists: Lucy Wanjiku Njenga, Positive Young Women Voices (Kenya); Longret Kwardem, 4M Mentor Mothers Network CIC (UK); Martha Tholanah, community activist and advocate, Making Waves (Zimbabwe); Maria Okwoli, Global Women’s Health Rights and Empowerment Initiative / Nigeria Sex Workers Association (Nigeria)

Lucy welcomed everyone and introduced the session.

Longret described the challenges 4M Mentor Mothers has faced in the UK as a small grassroots organisation led by black women from migrant backgrounds living with HIV. These challenges include the lack of any funding for core operational costs, short-term project grants, which cover a bare minimum of activities, the onus of reporting to multiple donors each with different formats, expectations and timeframes, the huge number of (unpaid) hours put in to developing grant applications, which are often rejected without any feedback, and the challenges of sustainability.

‘The short-term nature of grants poses a challenge for us because the work we do is about our LIVES, not just about short-term projects. This takes time, consistency, and trust-based relationship building which short term funding does not support.’

She talked about how intersectionality of gender, race, age, migration status and social and economic inequalities impact on organisations of women living with HIV, along with the pandemics of racism and violence against women, and the years of austerity policies in the UK. She described a recent experience of being invited by a current donor to apply for COVID-19 emergency funding, only to be turned down after spending a lot of time on the application, plan and budget at a time when the team was very busy supporting women during the lockdown – and later finding out only 17% of applications were approved. She questioned whether this was the best way of doing things, and suggested funders may have done better to just divide emergency funds among their existing grantees. She strongly made the point that women living with HIV are experts, know what they need, and how to deliver it, and funders should respond to their priorities, rather than imposing their own.

Comments and chat on Longret’s presentation included:

  • Constructive feedback would be amazing! Instead of a no….!
  • Based on my experience from my country funding is sometimes given based on relationships with donors, meanwhile it should be noted that due to competitions for funding many women’s organization lead persons have been exposed to sexual harassment from in-country donors and this compromises women’s dignity to get funding.
  • There is a lot of bias because funding is based on whom you know.
  • This is the same situation in our countries.
  • There is a lot of inter-relation between African countries in as far as funding distribution is concerned, with favouritism and women seen as inferior.
  • I am only glad that it is not only us who face the same problem but those in the developed countries as well. This calls for networking platforms where women leaders can meet up to discuss their issues as well as coming up with solutions relevant to the problem in description. Thank you so much Longret. 😊
  • This was well done Longret. It is so important to hear these issues articulated so well because many women in USA face the same challenges. We need to partner for mentorships as well as pooling resources.
  • Good job Salamander Trust for the mentorship. We hope as ICWNA to do the same for smaller chapters or organisations.
  • We are resilient, we are volunteering but funders must know the ground reality instead of doing politics.

Lucy noted that OECD reports that only 0.5% of international aid earmarked for gender equality actually reaches southern-based women’s rights organisations (OECD/DAC Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET), 2016) and its charts show that only 1% reaches women’s rights organisations globally (OECD/DAC, 2019).

These OECD figures explain why we are all feeling so underfunded. It’s not just our individual organisations – it’s systemic inequality, huge power differentials, massive concentration of wealth and very little redistribution. When our organisations and our work is so underfunded, it’s no surprise that gender inequality remains entrenched, women continue to do huge amounts of unpaid work, and violence against women and girls continues to rise, particularly in the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew. Lucy talked about her grassroots organisation, Positive Young Women Voices in Kenya, which despite being recognised for doing good work is seriously underfunded.

Martha talked as a woman living with HIV and also with a disability about the lack of funding for community organising and peer support, despite the ongoing need for this. 52% of people living with HIV in Zimbabwe are women. When funders came onto the scene, the good work the community had done in supporting each other was sidelined. Professionalisation meant donors bringing in someone with a PhD or Masters to do the logframes, rather than teaching the community to do them. HIV became sexy, and everyone wanted to be involved, and the community was pushed away and the skills within the community were not valued. Funding focused on short-term ‘project cycles’, and donor support was fickle and based on favouritism. She called for funders to meet communities at the point of need.

She talked about the challenges to the current economic and political situation in Zimbabwe, with ARV stock-outs, no social safety net, and women and girls bearing the brunt. Women try to support each other, but burn-out is a major issue. She related this to the big picture globally, which affects many countries in terms of structural inequality, gender inequality, economic inequalities, the legacy of colonialism, the role of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), loans with compound interest repayments and conditionalities, which keep countries in perpetual poverty. She called on donors to give multiyear unrestricted funding as essential, to enable capacity-building within community networks and organisations. She ended by urging donors, ‘Don’t turn our movements into projects.’

Comments and chat on Martha’s presentation included:

  • True, tackling economic inequalities is important especially for low and middle income countries. It’s high time we are at the table in spaces like World Economic Forum.
  • That is true Ms Martha, donors have interests and sometimes dictate upon what they need to see in projects but not what the community needs are. Thanks for the great presentation.

  • Thank you for this platform! I am an independent writer and activist who works at grassroots level to try understand the hardships women within my region go through. We are already fighting violence, FGM, early marriages among other things and HIV being stigmatised is a whole other issue.
  • Hello from a funding organisation (Elton John AIDS Foundation). Completely agree that there is much learning and improvement needed. Am finding these talks so useful. It would be great to think through how we create those spaces and sustain a united movement across different types of organisations.
  • Thank you Martha! How do we create that space to strategise about allies outside the movement to bring in new resources? Who are those funders?
  • You’ll never get heard by donors in certain areas when you’re fighting for a certain cause. No one pays mind to me when I mention that there are women who have HIV and need help. it’s a taboo and unfortunately the funders have people from the community within it who will make sure that I am not taken seriously. Very frustrating.

Lucy made a plea to funders, saying she was seeing her sisters in the movement in this session, and wondered if funders wanted to listen to us. As a 4M Mentor Mother herself, she has been looking for funding for community based Mentor Mothers, but this seems to make no sense to the funders. Menstrual health work is also not funded by donors. Neither is peer support in the community. Funders always want to see what is new, and now COVID-19 is the new sexy. Women live this life every day, and they are the experts. Their voices need to be heard, and they need to hear from donors and funders.

Maria works to achieve fundamental rights for every sex worker in Nigeria. She related the challenges for sex worker organisations in securing funding for their work, and emerging issue. Partners are not creating movements or even creating education. There are lots of key population organisations in the country, and little financial sustainability. There is also little skill-building or capacity-building. She talked about the lack of other alternatives for sex workers, and the increase in violence during the pandemic. Restriction of movement does not take into account the need to eat, and yet sex workers are challenged when they are out when curfew laws are in place. Sex workers know ‘where the shoe pinches’, know their issues best, and can design programmes that work for them. Funders should put sex worker organisations round the table of decision-making, and give them funding.

Comments and chat on Maria’s presentation included:

  • Too many criteria (high eligibility requirements) – like funders who are giving US$5,000 grants looking for NGOs to fund who have spent US$200,000.
  • International partners criticise efforts of direct beneficiaries, implementing entities and network.
  • Donor favouritism.
  • Most funding is so rigid.
  • Inadequate budget for grant running with high targets.
  • Competition among NGOs in the same circle.
  • Conditional ties or requirements.
  • Too many technical terms.
  • No feedback from some failed proposals to learn better from.
  • The world of faith organisations has been gathering together the small organisations to go in as consortia, coming under mentor organisations, building up capacity slowly until they can get their own funding. How can we pull together smaller organisations so they can go after funding?
  • We are a conflict country, and programming of donors is based on peace and security, leaving out women and sexual and reproductive rights.
  • Donors seem also to tend to jump on to the bandwagon of organisations that seem to be forging ahead regardless. That saying that people tend to support those that ‘appear’ to be trying.

Lucy called on Jen Warner from the Elton John AIDS Foundation who was participating in the session. Jen felt this was a very valuable conversation, and highlighted the importance of thinking about ways to engage with funders, but noted that it is challenging. ‘Don’t turn us into projects’ struck her, as she runs projects. The problems can only be faced by working together to address them. She acknowledged everything said by the panellists, and was keen to get more people into the conversation.

General discussion:

  • We need a regular space to reflect together.
  • We need support systems, and calls to action to donors.
  • We should share skills and resources – especially when we do not have resources to pay people.
  • The session has been an eye-opener, showing our common reality.
  • We should be networking and building coalitions beyond countries.
  • We need space to tell young women about funding and how to navigate these challenges. This should be part of mentoring young women who are leading in their countries.
  • We should interrogate the donors – they need to say how they can help us.
  • Funders are not in touch with our reality.
  • We have little capacity for fundraising. We need grants capacity-building for the leaders of women’s organisations.
  • There is a lot of fatigue because so many of our women’s organisations are folding due to lack of funding.
  • Several of the organisations in the session know people in donor organisations – could they advise smaller groups on how to navigate the funding landscape?
  • How could we have our own Women’s Global Health Fund?

There was a short time for discussion.

Kousalya Periasamy talked about India, where there is no funding for women living with HIV nationally. Positive Women Network (PWN+) India is underfunded, despite having worked for over 20 years. Donors do not recognise the need to fund women’s organisations, even when they say the proposals submitted are good, and even the Global Fund has no gender budget. It bothers us that they seem to think women will not get HIV – and women in India still do not expect that they can get HIV. ART is important, and we need it, but we are also facing lots of other problems and the health of women living with HIV is not at all considered at the country level (or the global level). How to raise the voices of women living with HIV globally?

Lucy mentioned that so many organisations go under. It is so frustrating to see women going through the same challenges as 20 or 30 years ago. As a young woman advocate, it is so tiring – we do not do this for pay most of the time – we do it because there is a gap and we step in so it gets done, but we need to be recognised for the time and expertise we put in, and we should do better. Lucy read out a comment from Positively Mindful in the UK on the Facebook live stream: “The hours I have spent completing the documentation necessary for fund and grants! All unpaid and unsuccessful, often I feel I am invited to apply just to make the process look fair, to show they have applications from Community Interest Companies and organisations that support women, that they do process them but then reject them. It is unfair.” This comment chimed with participants and was liked and retweeted many times on the live tweeting from the session.

Diana added that in a conflict situation, donor programming is based on peace and security, and leaves out women’s organisations working on HIV and sexual and reproductive health. You see local organisations trying to shift to what the donor priorities are. It makes it very difficult for young and grassroots organisations, since donor priorities dictate what organisations can do.

Lucy talked about the #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter movements bringing about some change, and the need for us to also bring about change on funding.

Next steps

  • This conversation is important and should not be a one-off.
  • If you want to be involved in taking this forward and developing a statement or call to action, please tell us.
  • We will announce a follow-up zoom call to discuss this further.
  • Salamander Trust, Athena Network, Positive Young Women Voices and Making Waves will put a link on their websites for follow-up.  

Thanks to all the panellists, the moderator, and the participants in this session!

Useful references on funding for women’s and girls’ rights organisations

Making Waves (2020) Blog post The scandalous lack of funding for women’s rights organisations

Hessini, L. (2020). Financing for gender equality and women’s rights: the role of feminist fundsGender & Development28(2), 357-376

OECD/DAC Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET) (2016) Donor support to southern women’s rights organisations: OECD Findings

OECD/DAC (2019) Aid in Support of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment; Donor Charts

Pachner, J. (2020) COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Women Raises Tough Questions for a Philanthropic Community Wary of Applying a Gender Lens to its InvestmentsThe Philanthropist

Women’s Resource Centre and Women’s Budget Group (2018) Life-Changing and Life Saving – Funding for the women’s sector.

Post written by Fiona Hale and Emma Bell

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