The Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun by Jessica Tomlin 6 March 2014
As we mark another International Women’s Day this Saturday, it is tempting to celebrate the fact that women in the developing world are viewed as catalysts for change in their communities. After all, women and girls are now considered to be central actors within government and civil society in improving lives in impoverished countries.
The truth isn’t quite that simple. Gender issues have always been at the core of good international development work. But now savvy marketers have figured out a way to leverage the plight of girls and women to create powerful fundraising tools.
Fair enough. Of all the donations Canadians make to charities, only 8 per cent go to international organizations and more than half of that is earmarked for humanitarian crises. So raising awareness and engagement for international issues is vital.
As someone who has worked for many years for NGOs, bilateral institutions and the United Nations, I know how important this work can be. But I fear we are losing our way. Missing in the flurry of female-centred fundraising initiatives is the basic concept of human rights.
Girls and women are now presented as tools for development. Educating girls, we are told, delivers incredible and immediate economic returns on our investments. The conversation is now focused on what girls can do for their families and communities, not about their basic rights as humans.
Alleviating poverty is by all means a top priority but it must not come at the expense of diminishing efforts to fight for women’s rights. Creating a culture that embraces equality is a marathon. We cannot lose sight of the finish line, no matter how far away it seems.
The very movement that establishes women as central actors in ending poverty ignores the grassroots movements that have been working for generations to improve women’s rights, starving such organizations of funding.
Nowadays, grants from governments, bilateral organizations and corporations demand very strict monitoring, evaluation and financial reporting. Small organizations simply cannot afford to hire an accountant to oversee grants.
To further complicate matters, many local human rights organizations are by their nature working against their own governments, effectively isolating them from any donor that works with the government to assign and distribute funding.
My organization tries our best to fill the void by funding small, on-the-ground women-led community organizations. Last year we put out a call for proposals for projects to consider. To say we were overwhelmed doesn’t come close to explaining the situation.
We received more than 1,200 applications from groups in more than 100 countries. They were not asking for a lot – an average of $11,000 – but they have few other places to turn. Our inability to fund but a fraction of the projects left me demoralized.
Perhaps our most disturbing finding was that three-quarters of the applications were for projects addressing rape and violence against girls and women.
Organizations are looking to provide a wide-range of services, from support for survivors of sexual violence to legal challenges that set precedent for improved rights for the victims.
Living a life free from the constant threat of rape and other physical and mental abuse may not directly increase a country’s GDP but without basic human rights what is the point?
Changing the values and beliefs of a culture – one where women have rights – as humans – is a process that takes many years. And that change happens from within, driven by the types of groups my organization is supporting.
Several of our approved projects focused on helping girls and women report incidences of sexual violence, with the aim of bringing this crisis out from the shadows. A great example is Harrassmap, an Egyptian organization that uses online and smartphone technology to encourage women to report harassment and rape, pinpointing the location on a street map and attaching the details. The project is proving to be a highly effective way to mobilize support and influence the highest levels of government.
During the Arab Spring, I was working for the UN in the Middle East, mostly in Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. It was striking how integral women were to the revolution, one which very much had a man’s face and brought extreme forms of violence against women throughout.
When they were pushed out of public squares, women became a driving force behind the scenes, organizing around the kitchen table, networking, collaborating and convening in innovative and courageous ways.
The grassroots organizations we are hoping to fund are not asking for much. They have annual budgets typically below $20,000. They do not fit into the tidy mold that donors are looking for.
This is not flashy work, and may not make for great ads, but these are the grassroots organizations that will ultimately create the societies that respect girls and women.
And that ought to be enough.
Jessica Tomlin is executive director of MATCH International Women’s Fund, an Ottawa-based charitable foundation that funds women’s rights organizations around the world.