A night march for women’s rights in Turkey, as part of International Women's Day in march 2021. Mr Doomits/shutterstock
A night march for women’s rights in Turkey, as part of International Women’s Day in march 2021. Mr Doomits/shutterstock

Nearly lost amid a bustling philanthropy news cycle in recent weeks were some major gender equity announcements from three powerhouse funders: the Bill & Melinda Gates and Ford foundations, and Open Society Foundations. Collectively, the three leaders committed more than $2.6 billion to accelerate gender equity around the globe over the next five years.

Support comes at a critical juncture, as the world begins to build back from COVID-19, a crisis that’s had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. The announcement was made at a Generation Equality Forum hosted in Paris by the governments of France and Mexico, and convened by UN Women, the United Nations’ dedicated driver of gender equality, and champion of women and girls.

The event was more than two decades in the making, following a Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which codified the concept that “women’s rights are human rights,” but failed to match discourse to action.

In a foreword written for the forum, Melinda French Gates wrote of the 1995 conference, “world leaders pledged to ‘take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.’ But they didn’t follow up with nearly enough money or new policies, so progress has been incremental at best, and here we are again, 26 years later.”

If fundraising results are any indication, this forum gives clear evidence of urgency. By the time it wrapped on July 2, organizers confirmed commitments totaling $40 billion from a wide range of sectors, including governments, NGOs and NPOs.

Funding from the three foundations will support six global partnerships, or “action coalitions,” organized around the main priorities identified by the forum. Here’s more on how each of the funders is helping to meet the array of goals set for this five-year effort, all with the singular target of accelerating change by 2026.

Financial leadership from Gates

A leader in advancing global women’s empowerment, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a $2.1 billion commitment at the forum, focusing on three areas: economic empowerment, health and family planning, and leadership.

In her foreword, French Gates called attention to the pandemic “shecession”—a term that captures the reality that twice as many women lost their jobs as men. And the situation is showing no sign of material change. According to the ILO, global female employment levels in 2021 are expected to continue hovering at 13 million below pre-pandemic levels.

Calling financial inclusion an economic necessity, French Gates announced a commitment of $650 million to economic empowerment initiatives over the next five years. They fall into three categories: cash, care and data. Cash interventions will put the agency to recover directly into women’s hands. Care means boosting paid work and subsidizing child care and family leave. And data will make the “invisible visible,” so that policymakers can develop evidence-based reforms.

The Gates Foundation reaffirmed its commitment to family planning by giving the highest share of overall funding to the issue, $1.4 billion over five years toward developing new and improved contraception technologies and high-quality care. Old and new partners include UNFPA Supplies Partnership, Family Planning 2030, and the Shaping Equitable Market Access for Reproductive Health Initiative.

A new funding tactic for Gates will also accelerate women’s inclusion in leadership roles, particularly in the fields of health, law and economics. To support the work, Gates made an all-new $100 million commitment over five years, and $230 million over 10 years, to fund leadership initiatives like Co-Impact’s new Gender Fund.

Ford leads on addressing gender-based violence

The Ford Foundation, a significant player in challenging inequity, made a $420 million commitment to address gender-based violence, a care-based economy, and stubborn workplace inequity that may drive an estimated 47 million more women into extreme poverty.

Work spans all six of the forum’s coalitions: gender-based violence; bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights; feminist action for climate justice; technology and innovation for gender equality; feminist movements and leadership; and economic justice and rights.

Within that, Ford is co-leading the coalition on gender-based violence, and directed more than a third of its total commitment, or $159 million, to organizations working on key safety and security issues. Funding will land in geographies that are part of its ongoing work, and in regions like Latin America, India and West Africa.

Additionally, Ford will direct $94 million to the coalition focused on feminist movements and leadership to support women and girls of color, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people across social justice movements. That work will strengthen feminist and women’s rights resources and infrastructure, and women and girl-led organizations in the Global South that are on the “front lines of advocating for gender equality.”

The coalition on bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights has been allocated $83 million, with $79 million going to economic justice and rights; and $5 million for the coalition on technology and innovation.

Ford is turning to new and existing partners to conduct the work, like the CARE Fund and Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). In part, grants were made possible by its sale of $1 billion in social bonds last year to fight inequality during the fallout from the pandemic. All funds are being awarded as general operating support to give organizations the flexibility to respond to new and urgent challenges and build a strong, sustainable basis for addressing gender equality.

Gender justice and movement-building from Open Society Foundations

For its part, the Open Society Foundations announced a $100 million commitment to a range of gender justice initiatives, and assumed the mantle of “lead philanthropic actor” of the coalition on feminist movements and leadership, which works to boost women’s “rights, voice and agency across the globe.”

The majority of funds are intended to strengthen feminist organizations globally in an effort to grow transformative feminist political leadership. Specifically, it will fund initiatives that put women, transgender and gender-nonconforming candidates in positions of political and governance leadership.

OSF will also boost efforts that give the same constituencies the agency to make personal decisions about their bodies and reproductive health.

Kavita N. Ramdas, director of OSF’s Women’s Rights Program, said the investment will help feminist organizing and leadership to ensure women are “fully able to engage and participate in decision-making that affects their lives” at home, in schools, in the workplace, and in the community—and to shape governments and constitutions.

Part of that includes efforts that put gender justice at the center of peace and security-building in places of political conflict, and addressing digital platforms that enable the targeted harassment of feminist activism.

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