Each year on March 8th, we remind ourselves of the remarkable, though often unrecognized, contributions that women have made to advance our collective progress as human beings. From its early beginnings when feminist leaders in the International Socialist Movement called for a day to commemorate garment workers who died in a 1911 factory fire in New York, International Women’s Day has developed in to a global occasion to honour past and present struggles by women to achieve equity and liberation. In the fields of global philanthropy and international development, the critical role that women play in the transformation of their communities has become a core focus of the work of the United Nations and in the stated policy objectives of national development plans. Embracing the cause of women’s rights and equality has become a globally accepted goal.
And yet, the 21st century is plagued by persistent gender inequality, a pandemic of global violence against women and girls, and a backlash in societies across the world against the hard fought gains of the global women’s movement. Indeed, it seems the more lip service the global community pays to things like the “girl effect” at Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative, the more likely we are to hear about a brutal rape of a young woman on a bus; the roll back of reproductive rights; the kidnapping of school girls by extremist militias; the persistence of child marriage in poor villages in some parts of the world and sexual assault on elite college campuses in others. Is it possible that the many investments made by the feminist movement in ensuring the education, self-confidence, independent sexuality, and freedom of girls and women across the globe are not just under threat, but risk being completely eroded?
Fortunately for our world, the answer to this question is a resounding “No!” For the past three years as the Ford Foundation’s Representative in the New Delhi office, I was privileged to witness first hand how courageously women across South Asia are using a range of strategies to resist entrenched patterns of discrimination and violence. Human rights lawyers like Hina Jilani and Asma Jehangir are challenging unfair laws in Pakistan under the aegis of groups like South Asians for Human Rights SAHR. In Nepal, legal advocates like Sapana Pradhan Malla, the founder of the Forum for Women, Law and Development or FWLD, have used public interest litigation to ensure the passage of a new law on domestic violence. In India, groups like Jan Sahas and its Garima Abhiyan campaign have helped liberate hundreds of thousands of women once doomed to a life of manual scavenging. The scourge of child brides is being exposed by numerous groups including the Child in Need Institute CINI, that trains adolescent girls in Bengal to become peer leaders in their community by creating an early warning system about at-risk girls and boys. In remote tribal communities across the central part of India, Centre for Catalyzing Change or C3 has been using soccer as a way to build the self-confidence and physical strength of girls and encouraging them to stay in school and delay marriage. Women with disabilities are being recognized as competent individuals with desires and sexualities, through the efforts of CREA, which works in many of India’s poorest communities. In Sri Lanka, women are the forefront of rebuilding a nation torn asunder by civil war in organizations such as the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust.
Despite these inspiring efforts, funding for women-led movements and organizations continues to be a major challenge as documented in recent reports from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development AWID. Nonetheless, with the help of women’s funding organizations like MamaCash in the Netherlands, the Global Fund for Women in the USA, and the International Network of Women’s Funds, women’s organizations have creatively built new partnerships that link social movements and philanthropic resources. Organizations like Dasra have brought together individual donors in giving circles and used their research work to introduce new funders to issues like domestic violence. Non-profit ventures and social enterprises serving women and girls are successfully raising funds, not just from foreign donors like the Ford Foundation, but increasingly also from committed Indian philanthropies such as the Tata Trusts, the Reliance Foundation, the newly created Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative, and the Arghyam Foundation. They are using these resources to address questions of gender violence, sexual assault, girls’ education, sexual and reproductive rights, political participation and economic independence for women and girls. While the word’s attention focused on the terrible incidence of the rape in December 2012, India’s women lost no time in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to change laws, implement new policies and pilot projects that could give women and girls more control over their lives and expand their livelihood and leadership opportunities. This pattern of responding to crisis with determination and renewed vigour is true not just for women across South Asia, but also in many other parts of the world. And that is good news, not just for women, but for all of us.