During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, here’s a question for all of us who believe that activism is part of the solution to gender-based violence in all its forms: can you buy activism?
This question came up in response to a discussion with a leading feminist activist in India who was sharing her sense of accomplishment in what the women’s movement has been able to achieve in the last year since the horrifying events of 16th December and their aftermath. The women’s movement has been able to secure some major changes to legislation on rape and harassment in India through leveraging the political will that they have been able to catalyse in part through sustained activism. Yet she was also very clear that for her and her organisation, activism and the commitment of people within the organisation to activism had to be kept very separate from program funding from international donors. In her view, using donor money for activism would be the best way to kill it.
This got us thinking about what creates sustained personal and political commitment in relation to gender-based violence. Last week, in Cape Town, as part of the work on the Accountable Grant policy theme on addressing and mitigating violence, we spent time working with the Western Cape Women’s Network on Violence Against Women in order to better understand how the possibility to act against gender-based violence has been developed through a programme called Prevention in Action. The central goal of Prevention in Action is to increase the number of women and men acting against gender based violence through a networked approach to social mobilisation. The programme involved identifying and training ‘community engagers’ and ‘community influencers’ and working with them to establish activist groups. These roles were funded through the programme, so the question became: where ‘action’ is the desired outcome of an initiative and you fund it directly, can it be anything more than pay-as-you-go?
Activists for hire?
Tensions in this example are linked to the role of external agencies in implementing social change initiatives and the extent to which action is being driven by monetary incentive, or the results framework of an NGO, and what this means for the sustainability of political action. One of the NGO partners in this process likened the situation on the ground to the game of a ‘living statue’: A person dressed and painted silver only moves when someone drops them a coin. She asked us whether financial incentives can build the strategies necessary to challenge the deeply harmful norms and actions that perpetuate gender-based violence. This question is made more difficult in a context of extreme poverty where people are negotiating how they will feed and house themselves and their families on a daily basis.
Talking to those involved on the ground tells another part of this story. For them, the consequences of gender-based violence are very real: ‘It is our children being raped and we are the ones that have to face this. Yes, the programme opened up the opportunity, but when the programme ends, we will still be here and we will still have to face this’. The experiences of the women we met show how the lives of activists extend beyond, around, and through any programme, and it is their own journeys as people that drive and enable action around gender based violence. A grounded understanding of the lives of the people involved is necessary to respond to the tensions of paying for activism. As Beth Mills discussed last week, this is also critical in responding to the paradox of a gendered, contextualised understanding of agency and empowerment and current development discourse and practice.
Valentina Pellizzer is a feminist activist in Bosnia and Herzgovinia, who we have been working with over the past few years on questions of democracy and citizenship for LGBTQI communities in the Balkans through the Participate initative and work on visualising democracy with SDC. Valentina made another interesting point about pay-as-you-go activism: if people with whom you are working and trying to mobilise see that you are getting paid for what you do, it undermines your legitimacy. In the context of the Balkans, this is interpreted as a mercenary strategy to get something out of the system rather than a real commitment to the issues and the goals. At the same time, she has many stories of ‘professional’ activists also acting as informants for the government or other external authorities. The latest scandal implicates a well-known activist as an informant for a global security firm, and shakes the trust towards civil society in a region where it desperately needs to be renewed and regained.
So where does that leave us?
The development industry is starting to recognise the importance of activism especially for issues like gender-based violence. At the organisational, or ‘professional’ level this means constantly making choices around resources, where are they allocated, and to what issues. Do you work ‘within the system’ to achieve change, or remain an outside critic—and what does this choice mean for how you get funding? For programmes such as Prevention in Action, the predictable result of donor-led activism is a pay-as-you-go approach where £5 pounds buys you one ‘act’ against gender-based violence. But how much can the politics we really need to address the deep roots of misogyny and violence really be done with donor funding? Can the commitment to particular causes for activists, which are based on personal identity and an intent to claim more democratic citizenship be incentivised? What really sustains this commitment and what undermines it? There are no simple answers to these questions, but if we want to really get to the bottom of how to use activism to challenge gender-based violence, we need to think very carefully about where and how money comes into the picture. When it comes to activism: can you buy it, and can it be sold?
Read other blog posts relating to the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence