Grants to drive change

VWC leading a ’16 Days of Activism’ march in 2022.

Less than one per cent of direct funding reaches women rights organisations in the Pacific and this is just one of the reasons why a stand-alone Pacific Feminist Fund has been established to address the chronic under-resourcing of organisations that are having an impact in the lives of our people at community and family level, Ariela Zibiah writes.

Women’s rights activism are key drivers of legal and policy change for women’s human rights and gender equality. Research conducted in 70 countries over three decades (1975-2005) affirmed that collectives or movements have been the most effective in combatting societal issues like gender-based violence (GBV) – as opposed to increasing the number of women in Parliament or increasing the economic prowess of our nations.

The Pacific Feminist Fund is the manifestation of a wide-ranging consultation across the region (with feminist movements, different sectors and stakeholders) to be a resource mobilisation arm for oceania women’s movements, looking at bridging gaps that’s stagnated the sustainability of small pacific women’s organisations.

“The Pacific Feminist Fund is born from the struggle, vision and perseverance of many in the feminist and women’s movement in the Pacific. This is now a reality that the work of many feminists in different spaces can be proud of. Its very existence is a celebration.” Yvonne Underhill, academic and a Pacific Fund trustee said.

Grantmaking supports these community organisations realise their full potential. The agenda belongs to the women’s organisation. Apart from the grant and some technical advisories, entities like the Pacific Feminist Fund do not influence the grantees in any other way. 

The modality used for such funds accommodates organisational (small) sizes and minimal capacity to manage human and monetary resources. Grantmaking is an enabling lever for women’s organisations making a difference in communities and in families which are usually left behind because they do not meet the prerequisites of bigger, traditional donors.

“The origins and beginnings of an independent fund that is mandated by the Pacific women’s and feminist movement is political. It means that we are first and foremost accountable to the movement,” Michelle Reddy, one of the Co-Leads of the Pacific Fund said. “I have seen women’s groups grow from strength to strength as they thrive in an enabling environment that organisations like the Pacific Feminist Fund can contribute to.”

A calling

Reddy is not new to managing an entity like the Pacific Feminist Fund having navigated Women’s Fund Fiji (Fund Fiji) from its beginnings in 2015 to its transition to being the region’s first stand-alone national women’s fund in 2021.

Women’s Fund Fiji has successfully distributed a little more than FJ$6.7m in grants to 68 women’s organisations, making an impact on some 30,000 lives. In March (2023), the Women’s Fund Fiji  announced 25 grants to 23 women-led groups and organisations valued at $A2.7m ($F6.0m) for the 2023- 2025 period to support justice and women’s human rights work.

“Doing this work, seeing the difference it makes to women’s lives and the joy that come with their economic empowerment and being able to support their families, send children to school and contribute to their social obligations has been personally gratifying. And at the same time, the women’s groups have been transforming all forms of power within their homes, their communities and their country to dismantle patriarchy,” Reddy said.

Fiji has a rich history of and continues to have a vibrant civil society movement particularly the women’s and feminist movement that the proliferation of community-based women’s collectives can be attributed to. This is a base that entities like the Women’s Fund Fiji can work with – existing organisations that are providing unique services that meet a demand at community level.

When one considers however that the Pacific region has ocean states that grapple with many intersecting issues, the establishment of national women’s funds can be challenging.

“That is where the Pacific Feminist Fund can come in. Being guided by the movement on their priorities, and being able to provide long term, flexible and core grants to registered and unregistered groups, organisations and networks. The goal of the Pacific Feminist Fund is that Pacific women, girls and trans people in all their diversity advance their human rights and gender equality in a time of climate crisis,” Reddy said.

“Mobilising resources, especially financial resources is needed for stronger social movements and institutions that define their own agenda and develop responses covering the fullness of women’s realities, holding the state and other duty bearers accountable for their commitments to women’s rights.”

Reddy has a huge task ahead of her as she fleshes out details of the new entity. She has lessons learnt from established global women’s and feminist funds to lean into as she sets out to amplify the needs and priorities of the region’s women, girls and gender non-conforming people. But she won’t be alone in this journey. The Pacific Feminist Fund is adopting a feminist approach to leadership that underlines power sharing i.e a co-leadership modality.

Pacific Feminist Fund trustee, Teretia Tokam, believes that a Pacific Feminist Fund fills critical gaps in a region as “diverse and complex” as the Pacific. Having a stand-alone Pacific Feminist Fund, she says, will support and be considerate of “Pacific feminist priorities, Pacific ways of deliberation, and the intrinsic systems of relationships that support Pacific communities”.

The Pacific Feminist Fund will be ours, mandated and managed by Pacific feminists.

Possibilities are endless

The most recent available data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member countries’ aid projects shows that of the total funding targeting gender equality and women’s empowerment, only 1.6 per cent went directly to women’s equality organisations and institutions.

Aid integrating gender equality is increasing overall but funding for dedicated gender equality programs lags behind. Of the USD$1.6 billion in gross aid disbursements to the Pacific by OECD DAC members in 2017, US$13.3 million gross disbursements were made to WROs, a mere  US$2.5 million gross disbursements were made directly to local, Pacific WROs.

‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, a Pacific Feminist Fund trustee, is calling for a decolonisation of the current funding modalities. That an independent fund now exists for the Pacific is indicative, she said, of “how powerful the women’s movement is in the Pacific”.

“The Fund will connect with, build, and sustain the existing Pacific feminist movement Decolonising the way we fund is critical, because we understand more than anyone, the Pacific contexts and the multiple and diverse ways of our women’s lived realities – you just cannot argue with that.”

Multiple and genuine, fundamental shifts in the way we support women’s rights movements and organisations is urgently needed.

Women’s funds the world over fundamentally hope to see a shift in the way global aid and philanthropy is practiced in a manner that ensures resources are distributed equally so these organisations can realise their full potential in whatever area they work in. They are also deliberate about ensuring that those who work within these spaces – activists, human rights defenders, etc – are doing so in an enabling and safe environment.

Pacific Feminist Fund trustee, Virisila Buadromo acknowledges the role the Pacific Fund plays in accelerating the reimagining support for women’s rights and movements in the Pacific, for the benefit of Pacific peoples.

“From resourcing feminist actions that include strengthening and growing Pacific feminist solidarity and movement, to re-imaging ” the Pacific way” and influencing the resource ecosystem so its driven by the needs of those most impacted by our region’s biggest challenges and not agendas set by others: the  possibilities are endless and each woman, girl and nonbinary Pacific Islander has a stake to make this fund work for all of us,” Buadromo said.

Resource mobilisation to support women’s rights movements is a collective responsibility. That women are able to mobilise themselves and find resources when they need to, must not be taken for granted, it cannot be a modus operandus anymore: the full realisation of women’s rights and recognition of what they bring to tables of leadership, development, finance, agriculture, education, etc, needs to be fully supported if we are to progress collectively, equitably.