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A call to arms for the inspiring women activists on the front lines

By Jessica Neuwirth on March 8, 2018

In many ways, 2017 was a landmark year for women and girls, and it’s heartening to see that 2018 is continuing in that direction. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, sexual abuse by men with various degrees of power and entitlement is finally being seen as a priority issue — at least in the U.S. and Europe. The Western world now has a much better understanding of the structural inequalities, violence, harassment and everyday sexism that holds women back.

I have been working on gender equality for several decades. Thankfully, there has been some progress since I co-founded the international women’s group Equality Now in 1992. Back then, women’s rights were still not seen as human rights, female genital mutilation (FGM) was deemed to be a cultural tradition by many rather than the extreme form of subjugation that it is; and the exploitation of women in prostitution was considered appropriate material for mainstream movies, like Pretty Woman.

Although we are continuing to deal with what sometimes seem like never-ending challenges the arc of progress is at least aiming in the right direction. More than 200 million women and girls have been affected by FGM but there are now only three African countries with high levels of prevalence that have yet to ban it.

A sex trade policy approach based on the concept of equality not only exists in Sweden but also in Canada, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland. This feminist model, which decriminalizes and supports women in prostitution, while criminalizing pimps, brothel-keepers and buyers of sex, is increasingly seen as the best solution to ending commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Various marital rape and domestic violence laws have also been strengthened and many other laws that explicitly discriminate against women have been amended or rescinded.

But while we have witnessed these changes, one thing has pretty much stayed the same. Funding to women activists on the front lines, who are making much of this possible, has remained miniscule throughout. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that from the $10 billion donated to non-governmental organizations working on gender equality in 2014, only eight percent reached groups in developing countries. For specific forms of violence against women, such as FGM or sex trafficking, this is likely to be even less.

Yet women’s groups in the economically developing world continue to deliver impact year after year on a relative shoestring. In Kenya, the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative (TNI) has helped to bring FGM down from 41 percent for middle aged women to 11 percent for adolescent girls. In Nepal, the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD) has helped female burn victims — including Sangita, who was 16 when a man threw acid over her face and body. Last year, the Kathmandu-based group worked with Sangita and others to help pass a law that will ensure better justice for victims.

In South Africa Embrace Dignity is leading efforts to fix its sex trade law and policy and help that country be the first on the African continent to enact the “Equality Model” on this issue. And in Palestine, the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) has also been spearheading efforts to ensure justice for Suha al-Deek who was murdered by her husband in an “honor killing” in June 2014.

All of these organizations are led by inspiring women who all partner with Donor Direct Action, which we set up to help build their strength alongside their donor base.

In terms of international aid Canada seems to stand apart from others. Canada’s 2017 commitment to put women and girls at the heart of its future development assistance is important. It recognises that we cannot solve the big issues of our time without putting gender equality at the core. Canada’s International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau went even further by pledging $150 million in direct financial support to women’s groups in the developing world. This is a major boost if it gets to the front lines.

The expensive middle layer of international intermediaries that historically gets most of the funding can be very disempowering to front line groups. In addition to costing much more, it makes progress far less likely to take hold as it seen as being influenced by “outsiders.” In relation to international aid the OECD argues that local groups may end up being forced to act as “implementing agencies rather than to pursue their own agendas.” Impact is often constructed on the donor’s terms rather than led by grassroots experts.

The World Bank sees empowering women and girls as essential to ending poverty and unleashing economic growth. This International Women’s Day let’s trust them — and fund them — to help make things better for all of us.

Jessica Neuwirth is founder of Donor Direct Action, an organization which partners with visionary front-line women’s groups around the world. Follow her on Twitter here.