Donors Must Work with Women – Not for Women

Maggi Quadrini argues that engagement practices between donors and grassroots women’s organizations in Myanmar need to change.

Women’s human rights have become a funding priority on the international development agenda. Across the sector, gender equality programming exists through various means, ultimately seeking to advance the voices of women through leadership pathways.

Myanmar is no exception to the vast investment of funding being distributed to specifically drive an increase in women’s participation. The country provides a fascinating landscape of how gendered politics have been factored into donor agendas and yet key actors are too often failing to meet the needs of community-based women’s organizations.

The political paradigm of how women are discussed in development has shifted in Myanmar. The question is no longer where are the women but who is talking about women and in what context? Despite the change in disclosure, the space for women’s agency is limited by the growing role of development models that undermine how leadership is defined in a community-based context. While the space for donor relationships that strengthen and support the capacity of young women leaders in Myanmar is promising, good intentions are not enough to mobilize community change. Selectivity in what projects are worth funding according to donor driven agendas puts the needs of communities second and risks marginalizing women further. Whilst the conversation has shifted to supporting women’s rights and women’s leadership, the relationship between gender focused community-based groups and donors can be improved and strengthened if the engagement practises focus on how their beneficiaries define leadership within their own terms

International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund support programs that promote economic benefits of investing in women. Likewise, development agencies that fund non-profit women’s organizations favor programming that adopts leadership principles engrained in Western conceptions of what is defined as progressive and empowering. While Western feminism rests on a basis of affirmative equality for all, in Myanmar feminism is evolving through conversations and shared experiences in daily interactions that come back to how women see themselves as individuals.

The tendency to broaden the scope of women’s advocacy has damaging impacts and can risk generalizing well-coordinated movements of female leadership within a community context. Ultimately, the flaw in the narrative that suggests investing in women and girls leads to economic empowerment too often dismisses the socio-cultural status of women in their respective communities. While donors continue to push for projects that invest in women, scholarships for example, overlook how access to education for boys and girls differs in rural areas. Similarly, micro-credit loans offer little promise for women if knowledge on women’s access and value on household finances is overlooked. Projects are limited in their potential if donors are too quick to apply short-term solutions to long-standing barriers of inequality, particularly in rural areas where an understanding of human rights is limited.

Similarly, funding allocated on the basis of advancing women’s leadership that is mandated by a set of top-down operations risks delegitimizing the work local women have been doing with their communities. According to research by the Association for Women’s Rights and Development (AWID), interventions by donors too often overlook how culture and socialization practises hold women back from accessing trainings and resources that are developed with international frameworks. Across different languages, meanings can be lost in translation. In Burmese, there are no direct translations for words like ‘empowerment,’ ‘capacity building’ and ‘feminism.’ To assert that there is a wrong or right answer, or that activity results will only be validated if they fit into Western constructs of empowerment defeats the whole purpose of seeking advancement in the first place. Many women’s organizations in Myanmar are largely community based and excel at sharing information in their respective languages on human rights in various forms (dramas, multimedia, comics, publications, etc). New resources and tools do not necessarily need to be developed in every funding capacity, but rather donors can be more effective at supporting efforts of activities already in place.

As small organizations compete for program operations and funding, another challenge presents itself. In some funding contexts, women must first be defined as victims before they can be considered agents of change. Pressure on small-scale women’s organizations to ‘create’ leaders has intensified in Myanmar’s political climate, which sees a national election on the horizon and donors frantically searching to fund pathways that advance possible candidates. The scope in which ‘investing in women and girls’ is understood is incredibly vague and risks further detriment to organizations streamlining female leadership programs in community contexts. Further, the research by AWID also notes the damage done by donors who assert investment in women and girls as individuals rather than a collective, as it calls into question the efforts of movement building that are largely enforced and sustained by local women. It also rests on a damaging set of assumptions that suggests the economy is a greater priority than a woman.

In order to support the momentum of opportunities being led by female activists in Myanmar, approaches must be culturally sensitive and aware of the concerns women face in their communities.

Ultimately, the expectations of beneficiaries to be successful challenges cultural assumptions. Competing with an agenda of donor priorities and misgivings regarding the varied concepts of female leadership limits the spaces in which young women can truly advance within their communities. Funding must acknowledge the cultural limitations that women face at all levels including the home, work and in spaces of socialization and religious worship– otherwise the oversight risks undermining their abilities or further exclusion. Donors have an opportunity to support women within their existing needs with better supported alternatives. The reluctance by donors to get involved in what are considered controversial topics as revealed in the report by AWID (such as family planning support) risks shrinking the space women are operating in.

Women in Myanmar know their communities. They do not need to be told the barriers that exist or the challenges they are actively working to overcome. Donors should listen to the voices of female human rights defenders to understand that the interventions proposed must be looked at through the context of how power structures limit women’s potential and undermine their abilities. Consideration is not only needed in approaches to promote young women but also how those programs advance or hinder socio-cultural factors that shape societal norms. Program funding should not rest on broad-based assumptions of how economic empowerment can change the lives of women – but what is truly needed is a deeper, more specific understanding of how women in Myanmar are working to overcome cultural barriers. When funding objectives match the agendas of local women on the ground the recognition of their leadership capacity and potential can be better fulfilled on their own terms.

Maggi Quadrini works in communications for non-profit on various projects along the Thai-Myanmar border focusing on gender equality with local groups including the Shan Women’s Action Network, the Karenni National Women’s Organization and the Karen Women’s Organization. Her work has been published in DVB, Asian Correspondent, Asia Times, Frontier Myanmar and the Diplomat.