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Co-impact’s $1bn fund to support women-led organisations advancing gender equality – Olende

Renee Olende is the director, strategic advocacy and communications at Co-Impact. In this interview with Josephine Okojie, she speaks on gender inequality and Co-Impact’s role in advancing women’s rights in the global south.

Can you tell us about Co-Impact’s $1billion Gender Fund?

Co-Impact’s new Gender Fund aims to raise and deploy $1 billion over the next decade to support predominantly women-led Global South organizations with large, unrestricted, long-term, and flexible funding. This funding is directed at initiatives working to transform systems to be more just and inclusive, advance women’s power, agency and leadership at all levels, and shift harmful gender norms that prevent progress.

We recognize that it is not only important to increase the number of women leaders but is also crucial to support women’s leadership in terms of their voice, influence, and decision-making power. As such, and in addition to emphasizing gender-equitable and women’s leadership outcomes, we included outcomes related to gender-positive social norms.

Since September 30th and up until December 20th, we are accepting applications for the first round of Gender Fund grants. This Open Call is an invitation to Global South-based organizations – including civil society groups, think tanks and academic institutions, professional associations and networks, women’s rights groups, and feminist and allied movements, among others.

Long-term, deep-rooted change must involve the entire ecosystem of organizations – from the health sector to education, to academia, and beyond. We must collaborate across sectors to make maximum impact. This is why the Gender Fund is open to such a diverse pool of organizations as each has a unique role to play in the collective push for gender equality.

Read Also: NGX, IFC laud Lafarge Africa for promoting gender equality

Why do you think advancing women’s rights in the global south has not had as much progress as it has in the west?

We must address gender equality with an intersectional lens. Gender discrimination is entrenched into systems in every country around the world and is only exacerbated when it intersects with other forms of oppression based on race, class, disability, caste, and sexual identity, among others. To transform systems and advance women’s rights, we need to understand the power in every context – who has it, and who is excluded.

Poverty, lack of access to health and education services, harmful practices and norms such as child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and women’s employment, land or property ownership, and inheritance rights are just a few examples holding gender equality back in many countries – especially those in the Global South.

No one has only one aspect to their identity or faces only one issue. Every individual’s situation and needs are complex and linked to the various systems at work in their life. Too often, systems that provide basic services like health, education, and economic opportunities can be ineffective and exclusionary. Billions of dollars are spent or allocated towards resources like workforce and infrastructure in ways that do not account for this level of nuance or benefit everyone equally.

What role is Co-Impact playing to address gender inequality across the Global South?

Our main role is that of a funding partner. We seek to partner with Global South organizations towards the common goal of making systems just and inclusive and creating a level playing field for women and girls to rise to and thrive in leadership positions at all levels — in the household, in their communities, and the highest national institutions.

We are providing flexible and longer-term funding, including dedicated resources to strengthen organizations, ensuring that 100 percent of our grants will go to Global South organizations and at least 75percent of our grants will be to women-led organizations.

A key part of our approach is collaborating with the partners we fund, listening to what they need, and advising. This is because we understand and respect that the organizations we partner with understand the local context within which discrimination and exclusion thrive and are best placed to decide the best approaches to achieve enduring change. We, therefore, ensure that they are in the driver’s seat; we provide the fuel while limiting our influence.

Finally, the Gender Fund builds on three years of learning and evidence-gathering. Co-Impact consulted with our program partners, advisors, and advocates from within communities and movements, as well as global experts and activists from all the world regions we are focusing on. We have continually used these inputs to evolve and strengthen our core concepts to ensure they reflect the interests of the communities we seek to serve.

In what specific way is Co-Impact changing the narrative for women and girls in Africa?

Norms and narratives perpetuate discrimination, lower women and girls’ aspirations, and prevent progress. Add to that the norms and narratives around African women and girls specifically – with them being often under-recognized for their potential – both at a local or community level, as well as at the global level – and overlooked as victims in need of being rescued rather than a huge part of the fight for gender equality and progress in their countries.

Attitudes and beliefs as well as deeply entrenched power structures that exclude women and girls present the greatest barriers to progress towards gender equality in Africa. Feminist approaches analyze power dynamics within systems and structures, providing solutions that seek to shift the status quo to achieve gender equality.

Since the barriers to equality are systemic, the solutions must be too. This is why any effort to achieve gender equality must fully acknowledge the social and cultural norms that produce and uphold gender inequality. Long-term change takes time, is complex, and needs locally rooted organizations that are committed to the cause and understand their contexts well. We must acknowledge that changing norms, narratives, and ultimately systems is a complex and lengthy process that does not progress in a linear or easily predictable way. It requires long-term commitments and investments.

What percentage, of the $1billion Gender Fund, will be dedicated to Africa-led initiatives?

Our grant making will be focused on a set of countries that meet a basic threshold of governance and civic conditions: We invite initiatives working in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, or South Africa in Africa; as well as India, Indonesia, Philippines, or Sri Lanka in Asia; and Brazil, Mexico, or Peru in Latin America. Funding allocation will be based on the number of successful applicants from each of these countries.

Our review process is designed to benefit from multiple perspectives. We recognize that those closest to the context are often best placed to assess the organization and their ideas to drive systemic change, and as such, we will draw on local advisors to review applications. The review teams will comprise internal and external reviewers who bring values alignment, contextual knowledge and lived experience.

Attitudes and beliefs as well as deeply entrenched power structures that exclude women and girls present the greatest barriers to progress towards gender equality in Africa

More importantly, the review team will include significant representation from women and other historically disadvantaged groups. Having a diverse pool of reviewers across expertise, experience, and representation allows us to benefit from diverse and rich perspectives.

What are the most critical issues impeding women’s rights and equality that need to be addressed in Africa?

In consultations with feminists, leaders of women’s rights organizations, gender experts, activists, and advocates – including many in Africa, we heard clearly that there are big gaps in funding for gender equality. These gaps include under-funded issue areas, barriers that hold women and girls back, and even bigger gaps in the types of organizations that get funded.

We also heard how women-led organizations across the Global South often do not have the resources or support to strengthen their own organization for long-term resilience. This is why we are huge supporters of providing partners with general support. This means that as well as project-specific funding, we offer the support needed for organizations to develop and strengthen their capacity.

Finally, there is an urgent need to address “gender systems” – the underlying norms, laws, practices, sanctions, and decision-making processes that lead to systematic barriers and persistent discrimination against women and girls – as well as create opportunities for them to exercise their leadership, voice, agency, and power, as individuals and collectively. This is why Co-Impact is funding partners to ensure that public (and where relevant private) health, education, and economic systems work and are accountable to those they are intended to serve.

Thinking specifically about the girl child, she faces many challenges in Africa from gender discrimination, gender-based labour division, female mutilation, early marriage, lack of education and sexual abuse. Is Co-Impact going to fund interventions that address issues for young girls?

Absolutely! Adolescent girls are some of the most marginalized and disempowered groups. Not only are girls’ rights, wellbeing, and education critical in the push for gender equality, but girls and young women are also crucial sources of knowledge and innovation.

Investing in girls’ futures means investing in recalibrating the systems still holding them back – from education, to health, to cultural norms and narratives affecting their choices and opportunities – allowing every girl to reach their potential and continue a more equitable cycle for sustainable progress.

Gender discrimination starts at birth, and we have to invest in the systems affecting the wellbeing and opportunities of young girls if we are to truly invest in gender equality – to ensure that women in the future are empowered and also equipped to empower the generation that follows.

The existing gender inequalities have made women more vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID-19. Apart from funding initiatives focused on advancing gender equality in the global south, what is Co-Impact doing to help women overcome challenges from the pandemic?

Women face several critical barriers to advancing their rights and wellbeing, which have only been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, McKinsey estimated that women are 1.8 times more likely to lose their jobs in a crisis than men and while women only take up 39percent of global employment, they account for 54percent of overall job losses. These issues are context-specific and compounded by other factors of discrimination such as race, caste, ethnicity, class, disability, and sexual identity, among others.

Common barriers include gender-based violence, lack of safety, curtailed reproductive rights, and the burden of unpaid care and work – including lack of quality childcare and early childhood development services. We will aim to find the right balance of focusing on these barriers while maintaining our program partner-centered approach. This means supporting our partners to identify both what they consider important and where there are opportunities for large-scale change.

We will then actively signal interest in funding initiatives that address country-specific barriers to gender equality while clarifying that we are open to funding other issues considered critical by prospective program partners in light of the new or intensified challenges that COVID-19 has inflicted.

 

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