Greetings from Cairo! At the invitation of the Ashoka Foundation, am privileged to be a part of the 2009 Ashoka Fellows induction. As you know, Ashoka awards three-year stipends to "changemakers/social entrepreneurs" around the world to encourage their ground-breaking and innovative ideas for social change and enterprise.
While there, I was asked to be a panelist for a discussion on social change philanthropy. My comments challenged the assumption that governments had no responsibility for social change and infrastructure; pointing out that the current system of global capitalism was failing to address the critical challenges of our time in any kind of sustainable fashion. In fact, the system needs to be overhauled in the most fundamental form, if not laid to permanent rest.
While in Cairo I met with some of our grantee partners. One group, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECW), a courageous advocacy and legal support human rights association, hosted a meeting in English and Arabic the groups ranged from those working on women's political participation, to those serving rural Bedouin communities in the Sinai desert. What a diverse group we were! Age-wise – 20s to 60s; there were men, proud to call themselves feminists who were mobilizing against Female Genital Mutilation, and women raising awareness on issues like sexual harassment. Some of the women wore the hijab (head scarves) others did not.
There was much admiration of Zeina Zaatari, our program officer for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); her ability to communicate in Arabic, French as well as English was greatly appreciated. We had a long discussion about the role of movement building. They wanted to know if the Global Fund could be more active in helping to strengthen and build movements and they had some great ideas like bringing groups together more often to share information other about what other women's movements are doing in other parts of the world; support their participation in meetings like the 2008 Association for Women’s Rights In Development (AWID), the UN Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) convenings, or the upcoming Encuentro Feminista in Latin America. They feel very strongly that the women from the MENA region are under-represented in world forums. They also feel that we must be open to proposals that include men as allies - urging us to fund coalition work. To do so effectively, they said, would require us larger grants. Not surprisingly, support that enables better access to new technologies was also near the top of their lists.
The global financial crisis was on their minds, with lots of questions about our revenues and donations. They were particularly inspired by stories of grantees who have become GFW donors and that we are talking the dominant role of militarism and the ways we might support women's groups working to counter that ideology. We also touched on controversial issues surrounding sexuality and sexual minorities and why the Global Fund supports human rights work in this arena.
Cairo also afforded the opportunities to reconnect with old friends like our advisor, Hibaaq Osman, founder of the Karama Project on ending violence in the MENA regions and a founder of the Arab Women's Fund, and former staff member, Sarah Vaill, who is currently a senior staff member of the Karama Project. I learned a great deal about how they are working with women in 8 countries in the region with the goal of partnering with allies in the women's movement. It is my hope that the Global Fund can find wonderful ways to collaborate with them in the future.
Finally after visiting children enrolled in a program on art, music and theater in a poor redevelopment zone outside the city of Cairo, I was reminded of the critical importance of the work our grantees do and buoyed by the immense sense of dedication, grit and hope they hold out for positive change. One quoted a young girl who had acted in a street play performance about divorce and custody issues, "I need to know about these issues, they are a part of my life. I have the right to know." Well said!
Kavita Ramdas is the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women