Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro is the president and CEO of Global Fund for Women. Theo Sowa is an international advisor on women's rights, CEO of the African Women's Development Fund.
Canada's unveiling last week of $241.5-million in funding for family planning programs – with 65 per cent of the money going to Africa – has activists around the world celebrating. By putting women's rights at the centre of its international assistance policy, the Canadian government is helping fill a global gap in funding for reproductive health options.
Ensuring the reproductive health and rights of women means giving them the ability to make informed choices and assert control over their own body. This can help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children and leverage deep, sustained social change that benefits entire communities.
In our decades of experience in women's rights activism, we have heard many champion reproductive rights. We have also seen that those who are best qualified to lead social change are rooted in their community. There are countless examples highlighting the magnificent work that they do against daunting odds. Yet, their work remains chronically underfunded.
We are not implying that Canada had previously ignored women. However, changing power relationships require recognizing the many discriminations with which African women must contend – this includes Canada's choice to favour northern international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) over local, grassroots groups.
From 2010-2015, Canada invested approximately $231.6-million in gender equality programming, mostly through UN organizations and other large INGOs. These are all good organizations doing important work, but the key word here is "programming."
In this traditional model of funding, women are seen as beneficiaries of aid – not as leaders of social, economic and political change. While well-intentioned, this model perpetuates inequalities and hinders real change.
Funding women's rights effectively means covering the full spectrum of social actors, including (perhaps especially) small and large local rights organizations. They are the ones who are most frequently left out or marginalized in current funding equations.
Supporting local women's organizations can be challenging for governments that are used to working with multilateral and large international organizations institutions. Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau's recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrates this well. During her visit, she announced funding to UN agencies and a few large INGOs. Not one women-led Congolese women's organization was mentioned in the announcement.
Getting resources directly to women's organizations on the ground is what women's funds are designed to do and they do it well. As non-governmental grantmakers, they support the most impactful local organizations, led by and for women.
Funding goes to support the organization's own vision, rather than program-based objectives. After all, these organizations know best how to navigate challenging social and political contexts and also tackle deeply entrenched behaviours in their region.
The African Women's Development Fund, for example, harnessed the leadership of diverse African women in 15 countries to hold African governments accountable for reproductive health commitments and push for increased resources for family planning.
In Ghana, this co-ordinated effort contributed to the coverage of family planning services under the Ghana National Health Insurance Scheme. In Kenya and Zanzibar, local authority budgets were adjusted to include direct resources to family planning.
For its part, the Global Fund for Women has consistently supported groups working to make holistic and comprehensive reproductive health available, accessible and acceptable in all regions of the world.
Women's funds are well-positioned to ensure that government resources are channelled to these change-makers. In fact, both the Dutch and Irish governments have partnered with women's funds in this way. It's a win-win. Women's funds can expand their vital work as relationship brokers, scouts of local ingenuity and advocates for change. Governments are able to diversify their reach and deepen the impact of their investment for women and girls.
Canada's policy shift shows commitment to supporting local women's organizations and movements. Women's funds around the world are ready, willing and waiting to help Canada make its feminist international assistance policy real and effective.