Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Carmen Barroso, a feminist leader and expert in global reproductive health, and Daniel Parnetti, EMpower’s own Senior Programme Officer for Latin America. They authored a chapter in If We Want to Win: A Latine Vision for a New American Democracy, exploring the history of the women’s movement in Latin America and why continued investment from foundations has been strategically important.
There was a lot of thinking that went into writing this chapter. I’m interested to know what revelations came to you in terms of the role that funders have played in strengthening women’s movements in Latin America?
CB: We saw great success because we looked at what donors had done in the past. Amazingly, Funders from the US—big foundations and smaller ones—had the foresight several decades ago to fund very small new organisations that were being formed by women trying to change the landscape regarding women’s rights in Latin America. These funders were wise enough to support that, and it became a really impactful movement all over the world. Then in the 90s, there was this great change in paradigm at the global level when the UN got together in Cairo [for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development] and countries agreed to support reproductive health and rights. I think the small grants made to small organisations in Latin America—decades earlier—contributed to that result. That was a success story of philanthropists.
DP: I agree. Donors and funders have played a critical role in enabling local organisations and women’s movements to grow, to become stronger, and to push their agenda forward. And especially with more force after Cairo in the 90s. We have seen great progress across the region, especially in terms of legislative wins in fighting against violence against women, promoting access to comprehensive sexuality education, and more recently, decriminalising or making it easier to access safe and legal abortion. We, in writing this chapter, could take stock of all of the progress that has happened. Both Carmen and I agree that these wins are at the policy level. The next battle that we are facing is making sure that these laws and policies become a reality and are implemented. There is a glass half full/half empty situation as the agenda is not fully resolved. There are many successes that we need to acknowledge and can take energy from, but there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.
That is so true. Based on your look backwards and looking at present day, what are your conclusions about what funders now and into the future ought to be prioritising?
CB: Donors always have a dilemma because there are so many needs that need to be addressed. What approach do they take? Where can they have the greatest impact, and how can they bet on things that may bring the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people? This is where the women’s movement in Latin America offers one of the greatest opportunities because there is a wave going on there. There is new energy with women fighting for their rights and changing the mentality.
DP: The answer to the question depends on what type of funder you are, and what type of activities you fund. On the advocacy front, there is a need to continue to invest to avoid sliding backwards. We have experienced this in the past, and it’s important to be attentive to that. Also, countries should allocate funds in their national and provincial budgets—guaranteeing that teachers receive the training that they need to effectively be able to give comprehensive sexuality education.
At EMpower, we are supporting programmes in three key areas: education, employment, and safe and healthy lives. One of our unique values: we don’t see gender equity or comprehensive sexuality education as silos. We understand that they should be cutting across all programmes and are essential to economic well-being and inclusive learning. Women—including young women, who are precisely the ones with the highest levels of unwanted pregnancies—should be able to choose if they become pregnant or not, to access contraceptives and services. And if they become mothers, that they can access childcare. This strategic view of gender equity and women's empowerment cuts across all of the work that we support.
And when giving grants out, funders should try to avoid replicating agendas that belong more to the Global North than to the Global South. Women's issues, women's empowerment, gender equity—to the extent possible—should not be perceived as issues that belong to one specific political party. These issues cannot belong to one given party, and everyone should make an effort to avoid falling into that trap. One of the campaigns that Carmen and I looked at in depth was Ni Una Menos, a movement that started in Argentina in 2015 to combat gender-based violence. It became encompassing of all political parties. Men were very significant players, so it was inclusive, and it belonged to everyone. This is one of the reasons why it was so successful.
I'm interested in your thoughts on investing in women's organisations and women's movements because they have had such important effects on human rights, climate justice, and on civil society as a whole.
CB: We have had a very flagrant example recently: Iran. And we still don't know how it will end. What started as high school students protesting the mandatory hijab has become a massive movement against the authoritarian regime.
I am very concerned about the wave of authoritarianism around the world, although I believe the fever is breaking with the electoral defeat of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the downtrend of the influence of Trump in the US, among other examples. But while the fever might be breaking, I am not entirely confident that it is a done deal.
In relation to EMpower, your approach—where gender issues are not just one dimensional and you are addressing three major dimensions of gender inequality: in education, in health, and in employment—is to be lauded. This is a very strong message that EMpower can bring to other philanthropists: it is time to recognise that one without the other doesn't work. The recent movement, both in the US and in Brazil, is very much "intersectional." The movement is not just one-dimensional. Women also have to earn money to sustain their family, they have to get educated to be able to have a better life, and there are so many other things. Women who have suffered multiple oppressions, such as black women and indigenous women, are bringing a greater energy to these issues.
This is the proposal for a new democracy: it's not enough to have civil rights only or political rights only; to counter the authoritarian movement, you have to have a mentality that cuts across all domains. Small movements are ensuring women's issues permeate the whole of society, which leads to transformation.
Is there anything either of you would like to add that we haven’t had a chance to discuss yet?
CB: I would highlight the point that Daniel mentioned about the interaction of different realms and donors. I think for a donor there is a dilemma of acting quickly or acting in the long term, addressing an individual need or addressing a systemic need. These are things that you have to decide on, but it's clear now that it's important to have a lamp that doesn't focus on just one dimension.
DP: I wanted to acknowledge the fact that EMpower is a mezzanine-level funder. We not only have an impact via the grantmaking that we do but also with the other support that we provide to our grantee partners. We try to lead from a very humble place, and by example, and by sharing with other donors—some our same size, others a bit bigger. Our approach is intersectional and we share our learnings and invite them to be part of our regional community of practice. We are trying to move the agenda, move the needle, and make a difference through these conversations with like-minded foundations and donors.View All News
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