Harnessing the Power of Women’s Organizations at the Grassroots

09 March 2020   ·   ​Daniel Wegner, Rosebell Kagumire

Women are spearheading social and political change in many African countries, often using creative ways of organizing themselves to circumvent power structures. Germany should realize their potential as political partners and support their work by adapting funding structures to unusual modes of feminist organizing.

When peace processes are discussed on the African continent, this is often done by bringing conflict parties led by men to the table to share power. Efforts to address the root causes of war and work on consolidating gains in transitional democracies usually take a back seat. Whatever the conflict, the power and agency of women in resolving conflict and building nations have been ignored for a long time. While it’s clear that women and girls face specific needs and vulnerabilities during conflict and instability, the narrative of victimhood has long been the focus of both humanitarians and warrying parties. This erases women’s labor in ensuring family and community survival during conflict times and later translates to the denial of a seat at the table when transitional governments are formed.   

This exclusion of women not only consolidates existing power structures, it also neglects the reality on the ground: women’s organizations and networks are often leaders during times of social unrest and oppression, responding to the needs of their communities even where humanitarian agencies cannot reach.

Over the last years, we have witnessed renewed pushes for peaceful societies and democratic reforms in different African countries with feminist organizations and networks at the forefront. As many African countries are experiencing a shrinking of civic space, women’s organizing is being propelled by informal collectives – particularly of young women – which can often beat restrictive laws around political organizing and funding. Some of these women-led initiatives have resulted in massive changes, like in Sudan and Ethiopia, while others have achieved small victories in the long struggle for the rule of law and respect for rights.  

African women are spearheading social change 

For instance, in South Sudan, the formation of a coalition government has bolstered hopes of peace and also found women championing inclusive peace and demanding their meaningful participation at all levels of decision making. 

Further North, Sudanese women risked torture and sexual violence to lead the revolution that shook up the country and toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir last year. The revolution, in fact, wasn’t just on the streets and social media, it took place in homes and family gatherings.  During the talks on the interim government, feminist activists organized the 50 campaign, calling for a 50% representation of women on all levels. However, with an insufficient female representation in the transition government, inclusive governance that is in line with women’s demands and experiences remains in far reach

The same tidal push for reforms is happening in Ethiopia after decades of a single-party dictatorship. The new government led by Abiy Ahmed appointed a 50-50 cabinet, and made Sahle-Work Zewde the first woman head of state in the country’s modern history. While these gestures are commendable, it is evident that uprooting decades of misrule and gendered inequalities will take more than formal, top-down appointments. Therefore, young women at the grassroots are organizing and making their voices heard in ways that were not possible before. The restless advocacy work of feminist movements and initiatives like Setaweet or the Yellow Movement has created new spaces for civil society engagement, which is crucial to facilitate free and fair elections in Ethiopia later this year.  

Financing mechanisms need to be adapted to local realities 

Despite an unprecedented increase in commitments to support gender equality, international backing for feminist movements and women's organizations advocating for sustainable peace and democratic governance remains inadequate – both in financial and in political terms: 

Only 1% of all gender-focused aid is going to women's organizations in the Global South. The largest share of the funds goes to international organizations based in the Global North countries, rather than feminist groups leading context-specific solutions at the grassroots. 

In addition, international actors supporting democratic transformations and reforms – including Germany – have not sufficiently engaged with feminist movements and networks as serious political partners. That way, they are often seen as unfit to meet funding requirements, given their unconventional organizational structures. 

This imbalance between governments’ bold commitments and the inability to adapt their actions to the needs of female and minority activists on the frontline needs to change in order to seriously advance the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Here’s what needs to be done. 

Grassroots organizations have to be recognized as political partners 

Germany should make the support for feminist networks and movements a priority area in the upcoming National Action Plan (NAP). While it is admirable that Germany finances initiatives like the African Women’s Leaders Network, a shift in numbers of women in leadership positions at the top is not necessarily followed by seismic changes at the local levels. Therefore, Germany's new NAP needs to place special emphasis on women organizing at the grassroots and explicitly acknowledge the informal ways in which they advocate for peace and security in their communities. There should be a shift in the relations with feminist networks and movements: rather than beneficiaries, the German government should recognize them as genuine political partners that are considered crucial for any peace and security intervention. 

Some of the long-established funding models for development projects need to adopt a transformational approach that reacts to the realities and needs of African women activism in hostile and transitional environments. For instance, the feminist funding principles proposed by the Astraea Foundation or the bottom-up funding model developed by Leading from the South are innovative and flexible grant models that Germany should consider. 

Consultations on the NAP should include women’s organizations from transitional contexts 

The knowledge and experience of women-led peacebuilding initiatives is an untapped resource that was largely left out during the development of the previous two German National Action Plans. Who else would know better about the political priorities, successful strategies, and modes of collaboration for peaceful transitions than women active on the ground? Consulting them in the current process of devising Germany’s third action plan would be the only logical conclusion. Any such involvement of feminist organizations from the Global South must be systematic, regular and has to be based on transparent selection mechanisms. Without doubt, this would significantly increase the credibility and impact of Germany’s next NAP.

Another low-hanging fruit for the German government would be to develop an inclusive monitoring mechanism to assess the implementation of the third NAP together with civil society from Germany and partner countries. For example, setting up an advisory council with representatives from Bündnis 1325 and women’s organizations active in transitional contexts would demonstrate serious commitment to consider the perspectives of non-state actors from different parts of the world in the implementation of Germany’s policies on women, peace and security.

Zivilgesellschaft Frauen Frieden & Sicherheit

​Daniel Wegner

Daniel Wegner is Project Manager for Peace & Security at the Global Perspectives Initiative based in Berlin.

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a Feminist writer, award-winning blogger and social-political commentator. She is currently the curator and editor of African Feminism - AF, a platform that documents experiences of African women. @RosebellK