Women celebrate International Women’s Day in Honiara, Solomon Islands. For the 2015-16 financial year, 50 million Australian dollars ($US40.6 million) will be allocated to programs under the Gender Equality Fund. Photo by: Jeremy Miler / Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

Australia’s federal budget, announced Tuesday night, was a largely disappointing result for foreign aid. But there was one surprise in the mix — the announcement of a Gender Equality Fund as part of Australia’s country and regional programs.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been a strong advocate for gender equality since taking office, and this fund seems to be a continuation of her efforts to empower women in developing countries.

The appointment of former Sen. Natasha Stott Despoja to the role of Australia’s ambassador for women and girls provided a well-known figure in Australian politics that could draw greater attention to the cause. And in the new aid policy announced last June, Bishop called for 80 percent of Australian aid investments to address gender issues as part of performance benchmarks.

For the 2015-16 financial year, 50 million Australian dollars ($US40.6 million) will be allocated to programs under the Gender Equality Fund. By separating out gender-related activities across the Australian aid program, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates AU$42.5 million will be spent on gender programs for the current financial year. This makes gender one of Australian foreign aid’s few budget winners with an 18 percent increase in spending.

Funding for Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, an existing program, will continue under the initiative and a new program, the Investing in Women Initiative, will be established to target women’s participation in Southeast Asian economies.

The response from nongovernmental organizations has been positive and welcoming.

“It’s funding that we always knew about, but it has been brought together in a new way within a new program,” Julia Newton-Howes, CEO of CARE Australia, told Devex. “It is positive to see the foreign minister make good on her commitment to reducing gender inequality through the Gender Equality Fund.”

Nigel Spence, CEO of ChildFund Australia, also spoke in support of the fund, noting how “the minister has championed strongly for it.”

‘Competitive’ fund — but for whom?

But there is still a need for more information about the initiative to better understand how it will fit into the overall aid program.

In her budget announcement, Bishop called the Gender Equality Fund “competitive” although no clear definition was provided as to what this means — does it refer to countries receiving funding or program providers? Spence hopes it means it is open for NGOs to seek funding.

“We feel strongly that NGOs should be considered for work,” Spence told Devex. “NGOs are strong performers in gender programs with a great deal of expertise and experience in this area.”

While welcoming the fund, Ann Brassil, CEO of Family Planning Australia, said it was important for the government to clarify the scope of work which will be covered by the Gender Equality Fund. Initial information suggests a strong focus toward economic empowerment of women.

“There is not yet a great level of detail provided by the government on where specific aid funding will be directed or on the gender equality fund,” she told Devex.

“Evidence shows that investment in reproductive and sexual health services enables greater gender equality, economic stability and the alleviation of poverty. We would welcome greater commitment from the government to fund reproductive and sexual health services as part to the commitment to gender equality and greater transparency from the government on how the aid budget supports gender equality programs.”

Spence hopes clarity of the scope will see improvement in the lives of girls in developing nations, not just women. He cautioned however that the initiative “should not be a substitute for other critical programs including maternal health.”

Partnerships key to fund’s success

But some are questioning how effective Australia’s gender fund will be.

At the 2015 aid budget breakfast, hosted by the Development Policy Center, while gender was touted as a winner, some wondered whether it could really win in light of the major cuts made to country, regional and global programs.

“Everything’s been a loser in this budget because the cuts and the breadth and depth are … going to be incredibly damaging to existing investments as well as cutting out future investments,” Newton-Howes said.

What is clear is that DFAT will be relying on NGOs and the private sector to make the Gender Equality Fund a success.

“It will fund, jointly with country and regional programs, investments aimed at advancing gender equality and foster innovative work by private sector and nongovernmental organizations, particularly women’s organizations,” DFAT said in a release.

DFAT has additionally suggested country programs will still be at liberty to fund gender-specific investments where a need is identified outside of the Gender Equality Fund.

In the coming weeks, DFAT will be meeting with NGOs to provide more detail on the aid program for the coming year. NGOs are hopeful this will also provide more insight into their new Gender Equality Fund and the focus of gender programs within Australian foreign aid.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.