Funding feminist movements: Interview with Kasia Staszewska

The ending violence against women ecosystem is interconnected by shared objectives and challenges. The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) uses its platforms to amplify the voices of experts from various walks of life who have dedicated their careers and activism to women’s rights and the ending violence against women agenda.

Recently, we spoke with Kasia Staszewska; activist and an Interim Manager of the Resourcing Feminist Movements Initiative at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) about their decades-long advocacy and most recent research on funding feminist movements titled “Moving More Money to the Drivers of Change: How bilateral and multilateral funders can resource feminist movements”.

AWID has said for decades that feminist movements and organizations are critical to addressing the structural drivers of gender inequality, including ending violence against women. Why is that the case?

Feminist movements are key drivers of change and increasing evidence confirms that — (Queer) Black women started Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements; across Latin America, Ni Una Mas [a grassroots feminist movement] challenges gender-based violence; Indigenous women have been at the forefront of protecting the environment; and around the world, activism by young women has made the climate crisis irrefutable.

Feminist movements are effective because they are led by and are accountable to the people they serve. They have the promotion of women’s, girls’, trans and/or intersex people’s human rights as their primary mission. They push for structural change and work on issues that are marginalized and/or contested.

We’ve seen a striking rise in violence against women and girls as a direct result of COVID-19 and associated lockdown measures. What role have women’s rights organizations played during the crisis?

Feminist movements have mobilized on a massive scale. They not only have led some of the most innovative and needed emergency responses to COVID-19. They also responded politically, collectively. They powerfully demanded global feminist recovery plans, and pushed back against the rising power of anti-rights actors as well as the massive wealth consolidation by the ultra-rich.

In AWID we see such bold feminist practices and innovative ideas mushrooming all around the world: from mutual aid, care systems and solidarity networks, emergency and solidarity funds, to concrete policy proposals for the post-COVID-19 economic system that is gender-just and people- and environment-centred.

Importantly, many of these bold ideas and actions are coming from historically oppressed groups in some of the hardest hit and least privileged places, especially among Black, LBTQI+, disability, migrant, land and labour movements. Some of these responses are localized, others are global. All are feminist power in action.

How is the critical role played by women’s rights organizations and feminist movements recognized in the funding landscape? Why is direct funding important?

Since feminist movements are key drivers of change, we may assume that resources supporting their work are as rich, significant and transformative as feminist organization itself, right? Well unfortunately that is not the case.

AWID recently analysed the budgets of 3,739 feminist and women’s rights organizations from the Global South that applied for funding with the Global Fund for Women between 2015 and 2019. Almost half of them, 48%, operated on median annual budgets of USD30,000 or less; only 6% had budgets over USD300,000; and a mere 2% had budgets exceeding USD$1 million. Groups led by women and girls affected by intersectional discrimination, for instance LBQ, young feminists or sex workers’ groups, are even less resourced.

These findings are incredibly sobering and show how little has changed since AWID’s last major report pointed out that the average budget of women’s rights organizations was only USD20,000 back in 2013. They also uncover a stark paradox in the current funding ecosystem: just 1% of all funding committed to gender equality reach feminist movements and women’s rights organizations. However, the problem today is not only a lack of resources. Rather the ways in which funding moves remain inaccessible to big parts of feminist movements and need to change.

What are the main findings of your research on how to fund feminist movements?

In AWID we hear time and time again that funders want to support feminist movements, but that those movements don’t fit their bureaucratic requirements: their budgets are too small, their finances are unaudited, or their evaluation systems are underdeveloped. Moving More Money to the Drivers of Change: How bilateral and multilateral funders can resource feminist movements is AWID’s and Mama Cash’s new report, in the context of our Count Me In! partnership. This proposes key practice-based insights on how funders can overcome some of the stumbling blocks and increase direct funding to feminist movements in all their richness, boldness and diversity.

We make a critical distinction between direct funding that intentionally delivers resources to feminist movements and funding that is more generally focused on “women and girls”, which currently constitutes 99% of ODA [Official Development Assistance] and foundation grants committed to gender equality. We also stress that HOW behind the funding matters. Funding modalities (or multiple practices, systems, and processes for structuring resources) are key to determine whether and to what extent funding will be accessible for feminist movements and eventually make its desired impact.

We invite people to learn from the real-life experiences of funders who move their money to the key drivers of change, including Leading from South, the LGBTI Development Partnership, the UN Trust Fund and many more.

AWID research notes the UN Trust Fund as a funding mechanism rooted in feminist principles. Why is this important?

The UN Trust Fund has occupied a unique niche in the feminist funding ecosystem. Tapping into bilateral agencies’ budget lines allocated specifically to the UN, the fund has delivered direct funding at scale to feminist and women’s rights organizations in the Global South, based on open and competitive calls for proposals. Your experience debunks the long-standing myth that women’s rights organizations can’t manage larger or medium pots of funding and proves how much more resources feminist funding ecosystem needs to absorb to able to respond to the existing demand.[1]

In the report we also highlight the UN Trust Fund’s welcome efforts to make its funding more accessible for smaller women’s rights organizations. The “small grants funding modality” introduced in 2015 allowed smaller and historically under-resourced women’s rights organization to apply for smaller pots of funding, without entering into unequal competition with large international organisations, which are usually much better resourced and skilled in funding applications.

In one sentence, what is the main message of AWID’s new publication?

We invite all funders to embrace funding modalities that move direct funding to feminist movements in all their richness, boldness and diversity; it is not straightforward, but it is possible.

[1] In 2018, the UN Trust Fund’s USD11 million in grants was the equivalent of just 2% of the USD528 million requested in response to the call for proposals that year.

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women is the only global grant-making mechanism dedicated to eradicating all forms of #VAWG.