The gender politics of funding women human rights defenders

by Alice Welbourn

(Originally posted by openDemocracy, republished under a Creative Commons license)

I have emerged from three inspiring days volunteering at a workshop discussing how to advance gender equity and human rights to reduce gender-based violence in the context of HIV. Yet the question still uppermost in all our minds is “but where is the funding to do this?” UN staff talk of 20% cuts to their budgets. Delegates from three southern African countries speak of the deeply inequitable funding available for work on gender equity and gender-based violence in their governments’ budgets. Ngo staff spoke of working from kitchen tables because of the on-going passion for this work, despite the funding desert. One clear theme emerges: there is no funding for women’s rights work. This surely is one of the grossest manifestations of gender-based violence around the world – in rich countries as well as poor. It violates articles 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It stultifies us all as we continue to hunt for funding to keep our organizational existences afloat – without which we cannot continue to support, scale-up and share the extraordinary work which is still going on, despite all odds.

Ah, but we are in a global recession, we hear you sigh, and one in six British charities may soon fold. That is why I subscribe to emails from “Philanthropy News Digest”, to remind me of the funds still out there. That is why I ardently support the Financial Transfer Tax, now being adopted by 11 European countries and over which the UK government is still dragging its heels. Praise yes, to our government for its 0.7% commitment to development – but the FTT is a separate issue and should not be conflated with that.

Last January we spent two solid weeks writing a “concept note” funding proposal and budget to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, to train health staff and other service providers to treat women with HIV with respect care and dignity and end human rights violations against them in a Southern African country. The requested budget was £600,000 over three years, mostly for training workshops there. In May we and several other applicants, doing excellent work globally, were all told that we had not reached the second round. Here is the post on the Trust Fund’s website:

This year, the UN Trust Fund received in total 2,210 Concept Notes from 121 countries for a value of almost $1.1 billion in requests….  Due to the volume of applications received, the UN Trust Fund is unable to respond to individual queries.

$1.1 billion sounds a lot but do not be swayed: this could be raised on Wall Street through a FTT by about Tuesday morning coffee break on Day 2 of the year’s trading.

Meanwhile we are still on the hunt for funds, whilst some have had to close. In March 2011 we launched a policy brief at the Commission on the Status of Women, signed by over 60 networks of women living with HIV globally. Yet it has made no difference.  I had to make my Research Officer redundant last January. Anandi Yuvaraj, Director of the International Community of Women living with HIV in the Asia-Pacific region, who this March produced a sobering report documenting the gender-violence experienced by women with HIV in ante-natal settings in India, had to close her offices in August. Yet without documenting these abuses, funding to address them is nigh impossible. Dr Lydia Mungherera, who founded the pioneering and award-winning Mama’s Club in Uganda, a self-help psycho-social empowerment group for young mothers with HIV, has also found funding impossible. So a simple, effective community-based esteem-boosting programme cannot be scaled up across the country, despite widely felt need.

What about the Global Fund? In 2004, I was amazed to see adverts in magazines saying “buy RED products, support women with HIV in Africa”. Amazed, because, through the International Community of Women living with HIV, I was in touch with many of them and was not aware of their receiving this. So we wrote to the Fund’s then Director, thanking him for this news and asking him where exactly these funds were going. Result: silence. Repeat letter: more silence.

Our experiences back then have been echoed by a recent BMJ post from Robin Gorna, former DFID HIV officer, now independent. She confirms that over 10 years there has been no Global Fund support for women’s rights programming.

And what about all the funding to stop babies getting HIV? Reader please note: saving babies, whilst crucial, in the context of HIV is not about women’s rights – it is far more about women’s wrongs, since women experience wide-spread blame, shame, scolding and worse in the context of having HIV-free babies around the world.

Friends in our village in England ask me: “are there not wonderful big programmes rolling out support to women across Africa, the big non governmental organisations on our high streets are surely doing great things?” The response to this from a Southern African colleague when I told her this was hollow laughter: “these huge internationals, led by doctors, full of good intent but no idea of sustainability. They are like Starbucks coming to your shopping mall, full of bright lights and new tastes – everyone is wooed by them, but the local shops suffer and close, the old traders have to become their staff, the community spirit is disempowered. When they are gone, we have forgotten the meaning of the word “volunteering”.

And therein lies the rub – funding and empowerment. These two words are crucial to a sense of dignity, capacity, and sustainability on our planet, whoever we are and wherever we live.

Why aren’t we making any progress on this in the world of global health and development, where the language of gender inequities is rife?  Because uneven funding is such a universal that many don’t notice it or take it for granted. “What the hell is water?” as one fish said to the other. And, even if we notice the inequities, as Babcock and Lacshever eloquently argue in their must-read book, women in the US, as much as elsewhere, are conditioned not to ask, for fear of being considered too strident or unfeminine. They tell us how, in the US business world, whilst women own 40% of small businesses, they only access 2.3% of funds to help them grow. The gender pay gap is also vast, both in the US and the UK.

In the world of global health and development finance and funding, as in the world of robbed motherhood, we need to get litigious and start holding our governments to account. We need to speak the language they understand and enforce the flow of funding  to women’s rights work as well as to women’s services: to address gender equality and gender-based violence globally until the need for the former is no more.  The trouble is that costs so much – and is also highly stressful. So we have a catch-22….

Some multi-nationals are starting to understand the economic rationale, at least, for becoming more gender-equitable in the business world. They have learnt that: among the companies for which information on the gender of senior managers was available, those with three or more women on their senior-management teams scored higher on all nine organizational criteria than did companies with no senior-level women.” Indeed, many have said that the global credit crunch would not have happened if more women had been on company boards. But this “enlightened” thinking has not yet reached the UN, or donor governments, nor yet the South African government, which arguably has the most equitable constitution in the world.

At a recent World Bank talk, Bono, of RED fame, spoke with Jim Kim, the Bank’s new President about how to end world poverty by 2015. I was so hoping one of them would say something about women’s rights. They spoke of more data transparency, of corruption and climate change. All critical issues – but still no mention of women – or of the fact that what is most likely to make you poor in the world is being female or growing up in a female-headed household.

Paradoxically, the World Bank has just produced a great report that shows clearly that “community empowerment” models of working with sex workers are both the most effective and the most cost-effective means of ensuring HIV prevention. The rationale behind this is that communities most affected by an issue know best how to deal with it and, given, the right resources and support, can do so. Not rocket science but it’s great that it’s now there in black and white on the World Bank website. Yet it is these community empowerment models which are least funded, least trusted and least supported by donors and governments globally. This is precisely because they are pushy, edgy, challenging the status quo, rocking the boat and, most critically, pushing for human rights to be realised.

Funds for these programmes, whether women’s rights, LGBTI rights, sex worker rights or rights for people who use drugs, are key to ending gender-based violence and HIV. Lack of funding is a gross human rights violation. We look forward to your moving forward on this Jim Kim. We’ll be with you.

(Image: keithreed01, Flickr/CC)

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