In April I launched a new project with my colleague and good friend Stephanie Berger, called RISE which is a political consulting project that brings the tools of fundraising and resource development to the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia. We have vast experience in fundraising and decades of know-how in the NGO, advocacy, and political sectors in the US and globally. We believe that communities across the Middle East, Europe, and Eurasia need a helping hand. We are working with individuals on projects that give strength and empowerment to people focused on a range of issues such as women’s liberation, human rights, trauma therapy, Syrian refugees, business entrepreneurship, economic development, and other critical topics.
RISE was formed in the recognition that not enough is being done to build strong and sustainable organizations adjusted to the international realities where the culture of fundraising is so different, which is why we offer comprehensive services such as organizational management, strategic planning, resource development, event planning, and cross cultural trips between the US and international organizations and leaders.
We also have a special place in our heart for women.
In our experience, women worldwide are uncomfortable talking about money. Women are also more apt to believe that politics is dirty business. These issues are often intertwined, especially in the US where a major barrier for women’s political participation is access to money where a candidate must demonstrate an ability to raise thousands if not millions of dollars for campaigns.
Outside of the US, women are also expected to show they have access to resources and business networks where money flows.
Sadly, women are not taught financial planning or investment strategies as often as men are, which puts them at a leadership disadvantage. Not having the resources to exert on developing their own leadership profile in the community or as a candidate contributes to a widening gender gap. Nor are women included in the information boys club which gives them access to business and investment opportunities.
RISE is doing many different types of projects, with both men and women. But we also want women especially to gain the confidence necessary to raise money in order to restore the imbalance that has put women at a disadvantage. This will increase women’s leadership potential and participation in decision making globally.
So, get comfortable with money ladies, that’s where the power is. Whether that means knowing how to raise money, where to look for resources or how to make the ask, we have to restore the power imbalance of resources!
I hear this far too often when working on strategies to increase women´s political participation, especially in counties where such efforts are most desperately needed. The idea stems from this argument: feminism is an “export” or a Western phenomenon that does not translate because of the “cultural constructs of gender in our country.” News bulletin, feminism isn´t a widely popular construct anywhere, even in the United States and Western Europe.
Yet, this rationalization in developing democracies ends up sounding reasonable, even among advocates for the cause, and here´s why that´s wrong.
First, it´s important to recognize that creating more equitable systems for women does not automatically work anywhere. It takes effort to get women to take up the mantle of equality, even women MPs. It takes work to motivate people in countries with broken politics to believe that they can change the situation, and that women are valuable partners in that change. It is difficult to figure out what issues are most ripe for action. You cannot boil the ocean, so choices have to be made about which issues are most likely to capture attention, influence the public dialogue, and help create a greater space for women. But, it´s less work when you develop a strategy, and pushback a bit at the same time.
Secondly, let´s keep in mind that resistance to “feminism” is often the result of resistance to the values behind feminism. Simply stated, some people are rejecting to the concept that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities (see the clever infographic to the right). Some people don´t like the idea of equality, no matter what words you use. The trick is to find those people and avoid them in your communication´s strategy, because you will not likely win them over, at least in stage one of your efforts, which should build a base of messengers first in order to move to broader persuasion later.
Advice for dealing with the anti-feminists
There are three ways to constructively create a movement for women´s equality, no matter the country.
1. Find the right words.
So if feminism does not work here (wherever “here” may be), find the words that do. What is the shorthand, what language best connects? I am a big advocate of using research-based evidence to form arguments around women´s political participation and have been involved in several polls and focus groups to figure out the right language, and better understand the barriers. Sitting in focus group after focus group, I can confirm, concepts of women´s equality are not well understood because the conversation is often muted. It is no coincidence that the countries most resistant to the language of feminism are the ones with the lowest participation of women. As advocates we have to find the balance of being culturally relevant with our terminology (and just as importantly the narratives) that move public opinion versus being overly timid because we think we have a problem of syntax when really we have a conflict of values. Country´s like Georgia and Ukraine have done in-depth research to examine public opinion and use this information to shape smart advocacy campaigns, like the Women are 50% campaign. Efforts to help illustrate the impact of sexism are also necessary.
2. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
This famous quote is music to an organizer´s ear. Every country is at a difference place in the spectrum of women´s rights. Decide where to start, what issue to tackle, and what tactics to use. Progress will happen over time, but there has to be movement in this trajectory. Choose not to be cynical and convince others of the value. Even in the US and Europe feminism has gotten a bad rap. To some it is a proud way to identify not only their work, but their entire believe system which defines who they are. To others it is an old and tired concept with issues and ideas that a new generation of women don´t relate to. And so what? The walkaway lesson is to develop a theory of change, find your targets and organize around them. Do what you can, but do something. And spend less time worrying about the critics and instead build power with people who share the same values.
3. Put your communication`s strategy at the forefront.
The road to women´s equality is not filled with a bunch of handbooks (although I have helped author some of those!). Like any movement, change comes through the actions of people. You have to move from theoretical to the actual. I could talk for hours about quotas formulas (constitutional or legislative), mechanisms within political party for gender equity, and model legislation to protect women against domestic violence. None of these things matter if we don´t have the political will to challenge stereotypes about women and fight sexism in media and politics — the very foundation of feminism. Our policy cart is often before the organizing cart of social change.
There is good news. There are new openings in many countries where women activists and policymakers are pushing the boundaries on gender equality, by focusing not just on technical parameters for equality, but rather communication strategies to create an enabling environment for women´s participation.
As mentioned above, framing matters. There is more sophistication in efforts to engage the public in a dialogue around gender roles and how this impacts women’s political participation. Public opinion research has given advocates better tools to evaluate effective messages, choose the right messengers and make specific word choices in order to talk effectively about the implications of rigid gender roles and impact of discrimination. For more on effective message development, download my how to guide and Toolkit.
Public attention to violence against women creates openings in which to redefine women’s roles in society. Creating a groundswell of “outrage” is important (check out recent examples from a range of different countries and cultures, Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns). When women are subjected to inequality or violence, especially of a high-profile nature, we can turn these tragedies into opportunities and create a strong and more stable platform in which to demand changes for women. The role of civil society in this regard is extremely important.
Georgia case study and women taking the lead
A great example of all of these efforts can be seen in Georgia, a country I have been lucky enough to support in their efforts to increase women´s political participation, which is growing stronger month by month, year after year. Watch a newly released documentary on how the women´s movement is organizing their efforts, all across Georgia, to pivot from violence against women to women´s political participation.
It was a privilege to present some of these concepts at a recent forum on women´s leadership organized by National Democratic Institute with the support of USAID and in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). My ideas for developing a strategic communications campaign around pushback can be found here, Tools for Women´s Leadership-Research, Communications & Technology.
Sixty women came together representing 15 countries in southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Each participant was from a position of power in government, politics, civil society, and/or the private sector. A lot of great lessons were shared that give me reason to be more hopeful than discouraged at the power and potential of change happening all around the world for women.
In sum, there is no shortcut to the hard work involved in bring attention to discrimination, building resistance to it, and ultimately changing attitudes and behavior that make the world more open to the ideals of feminism, regardless of what you call it.
Catherine Geanuracos of RH Reality Check wrote a really great piece about how women in the spotlight, putting their foot forward for political office, need to be sure they do their homework and determine whether they have the right stuff to win. It is one thing to be a darling of emerging movements where women are stepping up and making an impact. But it is often a different set of experiences that make one qualified to run for office. Don’t get me wrong, whether it is women in the US fighting the war on women, or women abroad making leaps and bounds in bringing attention to the cause of justice and equality, these are remarkable women who deserve our shout out. But it is another thing to believe that public notoriety, whether online or in the news media, is a key ingredient for running a successful bid for office. Campaigns come down to basic things..what are you doing for the voter in the district you are representing? Do they care about your profile? Have you done due diligence to show you have a vested interest in THEIR issues, not yours? When I saw a note about Pussy Riot members contemplating a run for Moscow assembly, I was reminded of this recent analysis, as they should also be. It is important that more women step up, but regardless of gender, it is more important that they win when they run and not confuse movement popularity with the support necessary from actual voters.
Women in elected office, worldwide, are always judged more harshly for their appearance. This kind of news has no place in a democracy. See how the mayor of Dayton, Ohio responded to news coverage about her looks. We used to believe that ignoring this type of criticism, taking the higher road, was the way to go. New research shows that when women call out sexist coverage they gain respect and change the impact of appearance-based commentary.
Talking points for fighting sexist coverage:
What I wear is not news.
Internet musings related to my appearance is not news and random irrelevant remarks posted on a Facebook page should not be the focus of mainstream news reporting.
What is and should be news is our focus on… (insert agenda here, pivot back to the message YOU want to convey). I am focused on the serious work of…(go back to YOUR MESSAGE).
Sexist attacks about makeup and wardrobes — attacks on what I am wearing rather than what I am thinking — have no place in the media.
When party leaders around the world realize that including women in more meaningful ways into politics is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, we will see real progress. Batting for early passage of women’s reservation bill, Rahul Gandhi vowed to work for larger representation to them in Parliament, government and Congress and noted that the party and the country cannot ignore the views of half of the population.