Supporting Initiatives By and For Women is Critical to Achieving Social Justice

In their new book, “Half the Sky,” Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn assert that there can be no social or economic justice, or human rights progress around the world, that does not have women and girls at its core. It’s a compelling case that is beginning to be reflected more heavily in Atlantic’s grantmaking strategies.

The social justice framework that Atlantic uses to guide our programme investments leads us to support campaigns, build institutions, and promote leadership to tackle structural barriers to improving the lives of people who are systematically disadvantaged by their race, economic status, nationality or gender. I’ve often written about racial, ethnic and economic barriersrelevant to Atlantic’s work, but rarely about gender. This is an all-too-common omission among social justice advocates and organisations, as Linda Burnham writes compellingly in her 2008 working paper “ The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing,” growing out of the Ford and Ms. Foundation’s New Women’s Movement Initiative. And yet I am increasingly convinced that no path to social change can be successful without the central engagement and involvement of women.



Burnham found that gender is absent from social justice work because sexism is often viewed as a subordinate concern to racism and other forms of bias, where entire communities are vulnerable. Women are often disproportionately affected by inequalities related to race, economic status or ethnicity, but the connections between gender and other inequalities are often overlooked. However, if you take a closer look at disadvantaged populations, you see that they are often largely women. It would be a mistake to try to address disadvantaged populations without considering gender.


At Atlantic, gender touches all of the work that we do. A look at several Atlantic programme areas and geographies makes this eminently clear.


Ageing. According to Joan Kuriansky, Executive Director of Wider Opportunities for Women(WOW), an Atlantic grantee working to build pathways to economic independence for women, girls and families, “Women tend to live longer than men and are often the caregivers for men who die earlier, leaving women with fewer resources to care for themselves.” In many ways, ageing itself can be seen as a women’s issue. Atlantic grantee the Center for American Progress outlined the demographics of elderly poverty in the U.S. in a 2008 report. As in other age groups, poverty does not affect older men and women equally. A lifetime of lower earnings due to wage discrimination, intermittent absence from the labour market due to care giving of the young and old, and jobs that are less likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans take a toll. For instance, nearly one in five—19 percent of—single, divorced, or widowed women over the age of 65 are poor (the poverty rate for a single person over 65 was $10,326 in 2008), and the risk of poverty for older women only increases as they age. Women ages 75 and up are over three times as likely to be living in poverty as men in the same age range.


Given these realities, and our stronger focus on economic security issues among older people, Atlantic’s Ageing Programme has worked to identify organisations that are pursuing policies and programmes to meet the needs of ageing women. For example, we provided support to the Women’s Foundation of California to replicate a successful older women’s advocacy leadership training programme in which groups of women decide what issues are important in their communities and then learn and practice the skills needed to be effective advocates for needed policy change. Our grant to Wider Opportunities for Women provides women and their advocates concrete information about the true costs of ageing and the impact of a life-long pattern of gender inequity that is being used to develop programmes and policies to increase resources for all low-income and disadvantaged community members.


Human Rights. While Atlantic has supported a consortium of advocacy organisations working to restore civil liberties that have been eroded since the 2001 attacks as a result of the “war on terror,” we have not paid enough attention to the rarely-acknowledged way in which the war on terror has had a uniquely negative impact on women. For example, women not suspected of terrorism-related offenses have been unlawfully detained and ill-treated either to obtain information about male family members or to compel male suspects to turn themselves in, provide information or make confessions. Militarised counter-terrorism activities in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have also served to decrease dramatically the security of civilians and have heightened the trafficking of women and girls and increased insecurity and poverty. Atlantic recently made a grant to the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice to report on and extensively disseminate the findings of the extensive research on gender and counter-terrorism being conducted as part of its Gender, National Security, and Counter-Terrorism Project.


Women are disproportionately affected by global migration through exposure to violence and economic exploitation. In Ireland, a traditionally insular society which has experienced a wave of temporary workers and newcomers in recent years, we support AkiDwA, a national network of migrant women living in the country. Originally created as an African women’s network, the organisation has grown substantially and today it provides an array of services to, and advocates on behalf of, women of all minority and ethnic backgrounds. Its activities include leadership and capacity building training, research, advocacy and networking and the provision of information and advice on a myriad of issues from immigration status to education, employment and health. The organisation focuses on issues of gender, racial discrimination, gender-base violence and access to employment. Another grantee, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, has been working in partnership with other NGOs and various government departments to deliver quality services to women in Ireland who are victims of sex trafficking.


In Northern Ireland, as everywhere, while men during the troubles did much of the fighting and many ended up dead, imprisoned or damaged, women have played a significant role in peace building and community development work. Two of the women leading our grantee the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG) – Jean Brown from the loyalist Suffolk estate in West Belfast and Renee Crawford from the neighbouring nationalist Lenadoon estate – were recently presented with the Northern Ireland Community Relations Award for bringing polarised communities together to reduce violence and improve relations.


In South Africa, Atlantic has funded organisations like the Equality Project, the Joint Working Group, and the Forum for the Empowerment of WomenMASK and People Opposing Women Abuse to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians. To advocate for the legal rights of rural women, we have funded the Legal Resources Centre to challenge legislative efforts to deprive rural women of their property rights.


HealthIn Viet Nam, as elsewhere, local health care does not respond adequately to the special needs of the rural poor, and rural older women in particular. The Viet Nam Women’s Union(VWU) is the leading organisation promoting awareness and actions on gender equity and advocating for gender equality related laws. We support the VWU to initiate innovative approaches contributing to the alleviation of rural poverty and improving health care services for older adults, build the capacity of community-based older people’s groups to respond to their own needs and provide support to each other, and conduct public awareness campaigns for policy makers and the public about the health needs of rural older people.


In the United States, the health care reform measures moving through Congress – aided by grants from Atlantic to Health Care for America Now! and to Planned Parenthood Federation of America – could dramatically transform women’s health care, guaranteeing maternity coverage, ending the practice of discriminatory higher premiums for women, and barring the treatment of everything from Cesarean sections to domestic violence as “pre-existing conditions” cited to turn down coverage. So health care is a “women’s issue” as well as a key element of the social compact for all.


As Atlantic sharpens the gender lens we train on our work, we’ll increase our effectiveness and that of the groups and individuals we are privileged to support. But it won’t always be easy, since the issue is multi-dimensional. In some instances, women experience discrimination based on their status as women, in the case of reproductive rights or domestic violence. In others, they are disproportionately impacted by a range of problems that don’t on their face target women, but that disproportionately impact them, such as lack of access to health care, low wage work, and poverty. This means that in order to address gender, it will be necessary to dig a bit beneath the surface sometimes in order to find out what the real story is. And, a variety of strategies will be necessary to address these challenges.


I’ll report back from time to time on how we are doing, and as always, I welcome your comments on what we might be missing or what we could do better.


Gara LaMarche