Break the U.N. Glass Ceiling and Raise the Floor for Women

Two questions are uppermost in our minds here at Donor Direct Action as the United Nations hosts it’s annual meeting of world leaders in New York: Will this traditional bastion of male power finally, after 70 years, elect a woman Secretary-General to head the organization? And how can we reverse the disheartening news that funding to women’s rights organizations has fallen by more than half in the past 5 years?

It’s not a stretch to see how these two issues are related. For years – indeed decades – a mantra of the UN has been that improving the situation of women is the key to successful development, to making the world a better place for all. Recent studies have shown that the work of women’s rights groups brings the greatest long-term improvement in women’s lives. But it seems the reality still does not match the rhetoric, the words not matched by deeds.  

Just 0.5% – $192m – of the billions of dollars allocated to promote gender equality in poorer countries in 2014 went to women’s rights organizations, down from 1.2% in 2011, according to a Gendernet review of financial support given by major donor countries.

On top of that, most of the funding that does go to gender equality programs ends up with NGOs in donor countries, rather than countries where the funds are needed most. Only 8% of the funds earmarked for civil society went directly to groups in developing countries, according to Gendernet, and only a fraction of this amount went to local women’s groups. The sort of front-line activist groups that Donor Direct Action supports.

We are not alone in saying that funding grassroots women’s rights partners is the most effective way to change the world for the better.  A 2012 study that examined 30 years of data on violence against women in 70 countries found that the key factor in driving policy change was strong, autonomous feminist groups, not the number of women in parliament, national economic conditions or the political leanings of the government.

So how would a woman heading the United Nations make any difference?  Well of course, it might not. It depends on who is elected. But so far men haven’t done a very good job in having the global organization pay more than lip service to those old slogans we’ve all heard a million times:  Women hold up half the world. If you educate a woman, you educate a family, a community, a nation. Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.

Perhaps it will require a woman running the world (body) to bring these truths to life.

Thank you for your support.


Jessica Neuwirth

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