The Legitimacy of Feminist Movements
Zohra Moosa authored this article for a collection of essays by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Examining Civil Society Legitimacy.
Mama Cash is the oldest international women’s fund, founded in the Netherlands in 1983. The feminist groups, organizations, and movements that we partner with are among those civic actors most vulnerable to repression—because of who is leading the work and because of the issues they address. We deliberately work with groups led by women, girls, and trans and intersex people. Moreover, our grantee-partners typically focus on issues that are critical for advancing social justice, but that are neglected or contested in their local contexts and insufficiently prioritized by other funders.
This combination of factors makes it particularly challenging for these groups to establish their legitimacy. They are unlikely to enjoy a wide base of support in either mainstream society or within social justice and human rights movements. Whereas other civil society actors may more easily band together in solidarity against attacks, our partners are often fighting to have their voices, issues, and agendas recognized as legitimate even within civil society.
Being Self-Led as a Source of Legitimacy
Yet these groups and movements do possess an important source of legitimacy: they are organized and led by people from the communities they seek to represent. This makes them powerful advocates: they are speaking for and about themselves, without mediation or interpretation by others. It is more difficult to dismiss a demand for change as illegitimate when it comes from those directly affected by the issue. Self-led groups and movements, even when marginalized from the mainstream, can credibly assert that they are experts on their own realities. Our partners often use the phrase “nothing about us, without us” to emphasize the importance of inclusion in achieving just and legitimate sociopolitical change.
We recently published research with fifteen partners exploring the strategies that they use to advance their agendas. We found that working with and from within their communities was vital for effecting change. Activists worked to deliberately build alliances within their contexts to demonstrate community support for their positions. They noted that their position as “insiders” has enabled them to leverage personal relationships and use culturally specific messaging. For example, they knew when and how to challenge restrictive social norms because they had been raised with the same narratives as those whose minds they were seeking to change.
Mama Cash’s legitimacy, meanwhile, stems from our identity as a women’s fund created by and forfeminists. We maintain our legitimacy by engaging in open dialogue with and being accountable to feminist movements. We regularly solicit their feedback on how we can improve our work. Since 2014, for example, we have conducted a biannual survey of grantee-partners and grant applicants (through the Center for Effective Philanthropy), asking them to assess our practice as a feminist grantmaker and reporting what we have learned from this feedback. In 2017, we also reviewed our support to and engagement with other women’s funds, through interviews as well as an anonymous survey. We also actively seek to partner with diverse actors within and beyond exclusively feminist movements, which contributes to our identity as a recognized movement actor. In sum, our legitimacy derives, in part, from belonging to the movements we serve and taking accountability to them seriously.
Promoting Feminist Movements
Our recent efforts to bolster the legitimacy of feminist movements and women’s funds may offer some ideas for how to build the legitimacy of other parts of civil society in the eyes of the general public or specific institutional actors. Our approach consists of
- resourcing self-led groups because we recognize their ideas as legitimate and believe that they should be funded,
- documenting our partners’ realities and showing their (and our) track record of achievements,
- pointing to external research that demonstrates the efficacy of self-led feminist advocacy, and
- supporting governments and other donors to pilot new approaches to establish a track record.
First, we have made approximately €60 million in direct grants to self-led groups of women, girls, and trans and intersex people since we were founded. We are also encouraging other donors to make more and better funding available to support this type of work.
Second, we have documented the changes our partners are making on the ground and analyzed whether and how Mama Cash’s support contributes to their efforts.4 This review and analysis has allowed us to pinpoint the ways that our funding sustains the work of feminist groups, which in turn helps build our legitimacy.
Third, our efforts have been reinforced by external research showing that feminist movements are critical to enabling women’s empowerment. For example, based on data collected over four decades across seventy countries, we now know that autonomous feminist movements are the single most important variable in advancing policy change to tackle violence against women.
Finally, we push governments to pilot new approaches. For example, we supported the Dutch government in launching the Leading From the South Fund, which empowers a coalition of four women’s funds from the Global South to independently manage €40 million in Dutch aid designated for women’s rights. This previously untested model aims to establish women’s funds as legitimate, valuable partners in the eyes of other governments. The initiative will also seek to bolster the legitimacy of women’s funds from the Global South, including in their respective contexts.
Our approach thus consists of resourcing self-led actors, highlighting the value of their work, and supporting other stakeholders to engage them, too—while seeking direct feedback from our partners to ensure our work promotes their goals.
Read Carnegie's collection of essays Examining Civil Society Legitimacy