Just four years ago, we initiated our grantmaking in South and Southeast Asia by supporting a handful of women’s rights organizations in Nepal and Burma. After hiring a program officer at the end of 2014, we took time to conduct extensive research on what the field needs and develop a strategy to advance the human rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people in the region. By the close of 2015, we began implementing our strategy and cultivating a cohort of new and existing grantees.
While we believe projects that meet immediate needs and rapid response grants to human rights defenders are critical, our approach seeks to fill the gaps in the current funding landscape by supporting work that will sustain the women’s and LGBTQI rights movements in the long-term. To that end, our grantee partners are local, national, and regional organizations that are led by women, girls, and LGBTQI people and that prioritize the human rights of marginalized communities. The organizations that comprise our South and Southeast Asia portfolio employ a combination of methods — direct service, leadership enhancement, capacity building, communications, and advocacy — that strengthen the social justice infrastructure across the region.
In February 2016, program officer Zaynab Nawaz traveled to South and Southeast Asia to meet with our grantee partners and human rights experts who work on issues pertaining to women, girls, and LGBTQI people in Nepal, Burma, and along the Thai/Burma border. Her goals were to assess the impact of our grantmaking, identify new partners (especially ones whose initiatives center on the rights of girls and LGBTQI people), and gain knowledge that will inform our South and Southeast Asia strategy. Nearly one year ago, a series of earthquakes devastated Nepal, a tragedy from which the country is still recovering. Then, in the fall of 2015, Burma held its first contested national elections since 1990, and the election was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). At the same time, Nepal’s Parliament elected women’s rights campaigner Bidhya Devi Bhandari as president, the country’s first female head of state. Even in this time of adversity and regime change, our grantee partners are thriving.
“There have been a few transitions among our grantee partners since my visit last year, and it was great to both reconnect with and be introduced to staff working with our grantees,” says Zaynab. “During my meetings, I gained a deeper understanding of the approaches that are and aren’t working — and areas where there is room for capacity building, including organizational management and communications.”
While Zaynab was in Burma, many human rights activists were in the capital city of Naypyidaw to facilitate trainings on women’s and LGBTQI rights for new members of Parliament. She was told that the country is in “wait and see mode” until the transfer of power to the NLD takes place this month.
“I touched down in Yangon amidst political transitions,” she says. “And welcomed the opportunity to travel to Lashio, which was my first trip to Shan State.”
The time Zaynab spent in Lashio was with our grantee partner, the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA), who was conducting their quarterly site visit to the region. Zaynab traveled with IWDA program director Jen Clark to the Burma/China border to visit safe houses, crisis centers, and leadership schools for women and girls living near areas where ethnic fighting takes place. She was impressed with IWDA’s responsible yet respectful approach as a capacity building partner for national and local actors, and observed that their experience and resources make IWDA a model for technical assistance partnerships in — and even beyond — the region. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have the kind of in-depth, thoughtful conversations that aren’t always possible on Skype, especially given the time zone differences,” says Zaynab. “In person, I get a much better sense of the issues affecting marginalized communities and how the political and donor landscape contributes to human rights strategies.”
After Burma, Zaynab continued her trip in Nepal, stopping first in Kathmandu to meet with grantees South Asia Women’s Fund and Women LEAD before taking day trips with teams from WOREC and Saathi to earthquake-affected districts Kavre and Sindhupalchowk. Even though these areas are difficult to reach — due not only to the damage caused by the earthquake, but also a recent trade blockade imposed by India that’s resulted in a debilitating fuel crisis — WOREC and Saathi have been regularly visiting to support projects related to relief and reconstruction led by their networks of small women’s organizations.
“I trust the intersectional vision of our grantees,” says Zaynab. “They are challenging gender norms and power structures in extremely challenging conflict and post-conflict settings. Our grantee partners benefit immensely from the multi-year, general operating support that is the core of our grantmaking. It’s the type of funding human rights organizations most need, but the rarest for donors to provide these days.”
Our grantee partners told Zaynab about the ongoing trauma that Nepali women and girls who are most vulnerable to caste and gender-based discrimination face, violence that’s been exacerbated since the earthquake. But groups are stepping up to the plate, and more women living outside of Kathmandu are lobbying for better implementation of the domestic violence law that was enacted in 2008.
“The current president may be a widow who’s worked with some of our women’s rights grantees, but Nepal is still a deeply patriarchal society,” Zaynab explains. “Generally, people are positive about the optics of a female president, but many are skeptical about whether it will affect women’s status or policies. Even if a group’s focus is on health, education, or disability, most mainstream human rights organizations are working on gender-based violence.”
As Nepal braces for the second monsoon since the earthquakes, many rural areas remain severely damaged and little to no funds have been released to rebuild homes or businesses. Community groups shared their frustration with how the government handled the easily avoidable fuel crisis. Typically-resilient communities are at their breaking points, and the road to recovery will be paved with struggles to access not just aid for earthquake recovery, but also funding that fortifies and sustains advocacy on issues like land rights, citizenship, and LGBTQI issues that risk being sidelined in order to meet the country’s short-term needs.
“Whenever I meet with frontline human rights defenders,” she continues, “we talk about the Constitution, citizenship, and caste-based discrimination. When I ask how they’re approaching digital security, safety, and self-care, they often respond that those issues (while important and challenging) are always low on the list of priorities. Instead, they inquire about how to improve financial planning, organizational management, and fundraising.”
Our grantee partners in both countries have solid reputations for effectiveness and efficiency, and they let us know how critical our general operating and multi-year grants are to their sustainability and the sustainability of grassroots movements in the region. A few have even been able to leverage our support to obtain other funding. However, as European governments redirect their support to address their domestic refugee crises, groups who work on women’s and LGBTQI rights in the region anticipate a significant loss of funding. We remain one of the only private foundations strengthening the infrastructure for advancing the human rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people in Burma and Nepal.
“Our communications focus is also appreciated,” says Zaynab. “There’s been a marked increase in our visibility as a major funder of women’s and LGBTQI rights organizations since my trip to Nepal and Burma just one year ago.”
The marker of a successful site visit, Zaynab returned to New York with three, packed notebooks in which she’d captured observations, new learnings, and key takeaways that will inform the evolution of our South and Southeast Asia strategy.
“Our role is to trust and support the diverse human rights activists who are creating long-term change for women, girls, and LGBTQI people,” Zaynab explains. “It was inspiring to see the transformative work our grantee partners are spearheading in their communities. I was especially happy to see more emphasis on fostering young women’s leadership. Even though site visits are often just a few weeks of twelve-hour days of back-to-back meetings, I always leave energized and more committed than ever to ensuring our grantees have the resources they need to ignite and grow the justice movements in their countries.”