Funding the Fight to End Violence against Women in South Asia

The brutal gang rape of a 23 year old girl in New Delhi on December 16, 2012 and her subsequent death has spurred civil society in India into action, bringing women and men into the streets, vocal in their demands for change including safer streets, tougher laws against rape, more sensitive policing and changed social attitudes. Neighbouring Nepal too is witnessing demonstrations against sexual violence triggered by the harassment faced by a Nepali migrant worker who was robbed by officials at an Airport and later raped by a policeman. The movement has brought under the scanner a culture of misogyny and patriarchy that pervades all structure (formal and informal) not only in India and Nepal but all of South Asian society.

The fight against violence against women is not new to South Asia and despite many gains made over the years the fight for women’s rights has remained largely under-resourced. Rights, Shares and Claims: Realising Women’s Rights in South Asia , a recent study published by the South Asia Women’s Fund (SAWF) highlights the limited support to women’s rights in South Asia in terms of indigenous giving as well as giving by traditional donors. The current moment presents a defining opportunity for philanthropy (institutional and individual) in the region to turn this around; to play a catalytic role by sustaining and supporting strategies that actively shift agency to women and enable a gradual bottom-up transformation of a society where women have greater dignity, equality, autonomy and rights.

However, doing so requires philanthropy to consider several complex issues that underlie violence against women and the problematic resourcing for women’s issues up until now.

An analysis of power relations
In order to be effective, philanthropic strategies and tactics must be based on a sound analysis of the power structures entrenched in South Asian society that contribute to violence against women.The recent incident in India is not an isolated one but a symbol of the asymmetric power relations between men and women that generates a deep-seated misogyny among men and manifests as violence against women and other marginalised people. With the feminine on the rise today when the existing power structure is challenged there is backlash “owing to an innate sense all around of the weakening of the institution of patriarchy”, explains Rita Thapa, founder of Tewa- Nepal Women’s Fund.

Santosh Samal of the the Dalit Foundation draws attention to the myriad ways in which Dalit women in India suffer violence in their daily lives; their bodies are turned into battle grounds to play out the caste conflict. “Dalit women are treated as lesser citizens within their family and community, bearing an unfair burden of caste discrimination. Additionally, they suffer extreme violence at the hands of dominant castes - they are beaten subjected to sexual violence and even paraded naked with a view to teaching Dalits a lesson.”

Institutional structures, including the criminal justice system, not only sustain but enforce the patriarchal order and violence against women. “We now find an alternate framework of governance and informal laws that are bolstered by militarization, impunity and corruption. Hence, we have to not only raise social awareness but also counter these informal structures which have in many instances replaced the formal structures”, urges Ambika Satkunanathan of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka.

Without basing the fight for change on a sound analysis of the power relations in society and the countless ways in which institutional structures contribute to sustaining and promoting violence not only against women but also against Dalit, tribal and other marginalized communities, effective and sustainable change is not possible to achieve. “At the end of the day, the way in which society views and values a woman hasn't fundamentally changed in South Asia. Even in 2013 women are not treated as equal citizens; in many instances they are treated as second-class citizens. Despite decades of feminist activism, this disturbingly illustrates that we have barely scratched the surface in raising awareness on these issues and contributing to substantive social change” says Ambika.

The Importance of Indigenous Foundations
The struggle for women’s rights in South Asia has never been more complex and in order to succeed in its efforts to end violence against women, philanthropy must examine the existing barriers in resourcing the work for women’s rights.

The study published by SAWF (mentioned above) draws attention to a shift from feminist visions of gender mainstreaming that was transformative in approach (for changing power relations between men and women) to an efficiency approach. ‘Strategies and tools like gender mainstreaming, gender budgeting etc. have also become mechanical, with the form taking precedence over content.’ The report further draws attention to the problematic piecemeal approach in programming where women are counted as ‘beneficiaries’ integrating gender in the implementation phase as opposed to introducing it as a strategy to advance women’s rights by integrating it into ‘policies, programmes and institutional systems and processes’. Furthermore, the report highlights the narrowing focus of aid and philanthropic agendas that are increasingly inclined towards short-term projects and quantifiable results.

These fundamental flaws in resourcing work for women’s issues could be due to the fact the agenda is often set by international donors rather than local organisations. Ambika Satkunanathan further explains, “For instance, although women's economic empowerment may be the need of a particular country/area, because the international donor has funds for work that focuses only on awareness-raising, and does not provide for the establishment of shelters, advocacy for legal reform etc., many organizations due to financial compulsions undertake the project. This could result in the either preaching to the converted, because often tend to target friendly beneficiaries, since project timelines are short, or undertaking to resolve only one aspect of the puzzle, i.e. awareness raising, without also addressing the other issues such as economic independence, safe spaces, sensitive legal framework etc., that are integral components of preventing violence against women.”

The SAWF report further draws attention to the problematic trend of bidding for projects that requires a level of technical skills that small women’s groups are unable to meet. Another phenomenon discussed in the report is large-grants which are used as a strategy to cut down operational costs but are in fact detrimental to effective philanthropy because large-grants are often beyond the absorption capacities and needs of small organizations working at the grassroots to address systemic issues that result in violence against women.

In this context, indigenous foundations that are rooted in the region and in the communities have an important role to play. Ambika stresses, “As those who work closely with both community organisations and larger donors, we are in a position to ascertain the nuanced needs on the ground and advocate with international donors to take a more informed and sensitive approach”.

A number of indigenous foundations in the region working within the framework of social justice are in fact supporting women activists who are working within their communities to address unequal power relations between men and women. Tewa presents a great example of a home-grown women’s fund, promoting peacebuilding and community ownership in a difficult context. Rita points out, “for over 17 years Tewa has mobilized local donors to support over 400 women's groups all over Nepal lending to community level peace building where there is a very high out migration of men." Another example is illustrated by Indira Jena of Nirnaya Trust, “The very founding of Nirnaya focusing only on women and girls has been in order to address the varying shades of discrimination against women and girls. At Nirnaya we have found it necessary to arm women and girls with an awareness, information base and confidence to be able to change the mindset of the men and boys in their respective communities. And this they do by advocating and campaigning for the enforcement of stringent laws against those who perpetrate any form of discrimination / offence / crime against women.”

“It is by working closely with communities, and at the same time advocating strategically and forcefully with international donors can we as foundations even begin to scratch the surface of this issue” , concludes Ambika.

A holistic approach
A combination of strategies and practices that are based on a sound analysis of the complex causes of violence against women are recommended for philanthropy aimed making a contribution to struggle for women’s rights in South Asia.

• As a priority, support women’s work on social justice and peace based on local demands and process oriented work for addressing and shifting power
• Support the development of small and community based women’s groups
• Support organisational capacities (accounting, computer skills, self evaluation of their work, strategic communications among others) of women’s groups to ensure sustainability, transparency, accountability and the building of a broad base of support for the movement for women’s rights
• Support small women’s initiatives that are thinking differently and serve as innovative models aimed at redistributing power in relationships and structures
• Support the development of community philanthropy which embodies the principals of mutual ownership, respect, and trust in structures which are transparent and accountable
• Support the creation of spaces for conversations to work through some of the transitions happening in our times. This can help in better comprehension and understanding of the current context, therefore curtail backlash and lend to peace and harmony grounded on mutual respect.
• Ensure that your systems and processes are accessible to small women’s groups with limited technical capacity
• Invest in the capacity development and perspective building of women’s groups on gender equality and specific issues related to caste and membership in Dalit and other marginalized groups
Create spaces for women’s groups to convene so that they can build alliances, learn from one another and share knowledge and information
Share lessons from successes and failures with peer grant makers in order to promote effective philanthropy to end VAW
Celebrate success and build an evidence base on the impact of philanthropic resources for women’s rights in order to engage newer and diverse philanthropic resources including institutional, individual, diaspora and corporate

‘Be the change you want to see’
There are a number of defining principles that underpin these recommendations: 1) as put by Shaheen Anam of the Manusher Jonno Foundation ‘strategies have to be home grown and contextualized’; 2) women are not cast as ‘victims’ and ‘beneficiaries’ in the struggle to end violence against women but as ‘agents of change’ who have the ability to provide leadership; 3) philanthropic strategies take into cognizance that this fight is not easy, not always quantifiable, nor quick and it needs unwavering and sustainable support in order to have a chance at succeeding; 4) above all, philanthropy must apply to itself the same rules it would apply to others and examine its own programmes, systems, governance structures, policies and everyday processes from a gender lens.

Finally, philanthropy must examine its role, in the struggle to end violence against women, as an intrinsic part of the fabric of society. Indira Jena of Nirnaya Trust makes a strong appeal for introspection when she says, “This incident is a reminder for each and every one of us to wake up and take responsibility for the way women are perceived and treated in our society. It is our liability to responsibly communicate the inherent worth, dignity and autonomy of every woman through institutions like the media, education, and law, as also through our everyday interpersonal interactions. We are forever indebted to the young twenty-three year old woman who had to undergo such severe violation of her body and life, in order that we may awaken and come around as a society. It is our deepest appeal to everyone to continue to urge with every waking breath, word and action, for a society that is free of crimes against women.”

With inputs from
Shaheen Anam ( Manusher Jonno Foundation, Bangladesh)
Indira Jena ( Nirnaya Trust, India)
Rita Thapa ( Tewa- Nepal Women’s Fund, Nepal)
Ambika Satkunnathan ( Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Sri Lanka)
Santosh Samal ( Dalit Foundation, India)

The five foundations listed above are also members of the Foundations for Peace Network and share a belief that activist funders who are indigenous foundations are well placed to play a constructive and vital role in delivering local peace building and social justice programmes.

For more information on women led initiatives to end violence against women in South Asia and philanthropic strategies to support the same, check out the following websites:

Bangladesh Women’s Foundation
Dalit Foundation
Manusher Jonno Foundation
Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust
Nirnaya Trust
Sangat South Asia
South Asia Women’s Fund (SAWF)
Tewa- Nepal Women’s Fund
National Alliance of Women’s Organizations
Anveshi Women’s Studies Research Centre
Bhumika Helpline for Women in Distress
International Network of Women’s Funds