The Gulabi Gang, organizing and fighting for women’s rights in India

#HowEqualityHappens: Why Women’s Movements Will Accelerate Development Progress

Wonder Woman’s box office success. “Woke bae” Justin Trudeau’s 50–50 cabinet. Women’s soccer scoring goals for equal pay. Pink pussy hats in the streets. For many young Westerners, it’s easy to feel like the world has been swept up in a hot new wave of feminism, unlike anything seen in our lifetimes. Suddenly, it’s not just development nerds and gender studies majors who are talking about inequality and intersectionality — our dinner table conversations, political debates, and twitter feeds are filled with it.

But as much as this might feel like a new or revitalized phenomenon, my day job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation constantly reminds me that women coming together to push for real change in their communities is far from news — it’s a tale as old as time.

Nobel Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

Last year, as our foundation began ramping up a focus on gender equality, our team was tasked with devising a strategy to speed up progress for women and girls across the global south. When we reviewed the research and talked to experts, one message came through resoundingly clear: “support local women’s organizations and movements.”

The more we learned about these groups, the more we understood two truths: they have been driving forces for change, and they have been incredibly under-funded.

Far from the spotlight — often even far from reliable internet connections — women’s groups have been forging and winning impressive campaigns. From Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace who pushed leaders to the peace table and helped end a decade of civil war, to the Gulabi Gang of Indian activists who don pink saris and fight back against police injustices, and from global Suffragette movements to Jaha Dukureh’s work to energize a new generation of activists working to ban female genital mutilation and cutting, these diverse movements have been at the root of many advancements for women and girls.

These aren’t just anecdotes. Rigorous research in 70 countries over four decades showed that women’s movements were more effective at creating and sustaining policy change, particularly on violence against women, than many other factors including countries’ economic growth and political leadership.

For all this impact, you’d think these women’s groups were rolling in cash.

But it turns out the opposite is true — they have been effective despite their budgets, not because of them.

While donor aid for gender issues has grown overall, funding specifically targeted for local women’s organizations remains stuck at less than 2% of the pie. According to a 2013 AWID report, the median annual budget of more than 740 women’s organizations around the world was just $20,000.

It’s not just that they’re under-funded — they are also constantly under threat. We over-use labels like “badass”, but these are the women who are truly on the front lines, often taking big risks to their reputations and their safety to campaign for what they know is right.

That’s why I’m excited and proud that today, our co-chair Melinda Gates announced a new, $20 million portfolio of grants for grassroots campaigners, organizations, and women’s movements. Our grants will support:

  • Women’s funds, including Mama Cash and the Prospera network, which sub-grant to grassroots women’s groups across the global south and help build strategic alliances
  • Specific grassroots organizations that are running targeted campaigns to advance the Sustainable Development Goals and amplifying local women’s voices in the process
  • Online and offline platforms, including the Change.org Foundation and the Amref Advocacy Accelerator, designed to incubate champions, strengthen women’s campaigning skills, and build their networks
  • New academic research led by Laurel Weldon at Purdue University to deepen our understanding of movements’ impacts and strengthen the investment case.

These grants represent a new approach for us, and we’ve learned a lot in the process of developing the portfolio. We stand on the shoulders of the funders who have gone before us; governments like the Netherlands and members of the PAWHR network have been pioneers in this space, developing new ways to channel resources to local groups.

We also know that we can’t go it alone and need to consider creative approaches. We were thrilled to see Canada announce a new $150 million fund to support local organizations as part of its new feminist foreign policy. We’re so pleased to collaborate with philanthropic partners like the EdelGive Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. And we are excited to build new kinds of partnerships like one with The Points Guy that taps into their network of travel aficionados and will donate up to 5 million airline miles to ensure grassroots activists can travel and have their voices heard.

Women and girls have always been at the core of our foundation’s work, whether in programs for female smallholder farmers or projects to improve women’s access to bank accounts.

As we begin to roll out these new grants, we’ll work to ensure that they don’t stand in isolation from our existing work related to gender equality.

In fact, because this commitment sits within the wider $80 million portfolio that Melinda announced at Women Deliver last May, we see support for women’s movements as integrally linked to the investments we’re making to close gender data gaps and support SDG accountability.

Above all, these investment decisions are grounded in a shared belief that women in their communities who are closest to very real challenges are also the most likely to know the right solutions, and the most willing to put everything on the line to fight for them.

We’re standing side by side with them — because ultimately, an equal world is a greater world, and because we believe in women’s power to get us there. This is how equality happens.