Some gender equality progress 'slipping away,' says former Global Fund for Women CEO

Musimbi Kanyoro, Kenyan human rights advocate. Photo by: Ryan Lash / TED / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — Musimbi Kanyoro ended her eight-year tenure as president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women in July — but gender equality work is far from over, she said. New threats from fundamentalist movements are challenging progress, Kanyoro told Devex in a recent interview.

“I cannot say everything is going OK, because there are still a lot of rights that women have gained over time that are slipping away from under their feet,” Kanyoro said.

“For all of the time I have worked in this space, there has never been a time such as this when the issue of gender is on the lips of almost everybody, whether it is for good or bad.”

— Musimbi Kanyoro, former CEO of the Global Fund for Women  

When Kanyoro, a Kenya native, took the reins of the Global Fund in 2011, the public foundation gave an average of $10,000 to $50,000 in individual grants to women’s organizations and grassroots movements. Since then, the fund has worked up to $20,000 as the minimum for a grant. Their largest grant so far is $200,000, according to Kanyoro.

In 2018, the Global Fund for Women awarded more than $7.8 million and issued 302 grants, 68% of which were multi-year, reflective of the fund’s strategy to support longer-term work. Apart from the Global Fund, there’s been a rise in other forms of gender-smart investing, like the new Equality Fund, launched in June with a 300 million Canadian dollars ($226.3 million) commitment from the Canadian government.  

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“For all of the time I have worked in this space, there has never been a time such as this when the issue of gender is on the lips of almost everybody, whether it is for good or bad,” Kanyoro said.

Despite an increase in investments, some areas of progress are “slipping away,” under pressure from conservative governments and fundamentalist movements, she said.

“We have a lot of conservative governments rising in many parts of the world, and religious fundamentalism that is cracking down on the achievements that women have made,” Kanyoro said.

One area of improvement Kanyoro referenced is the crackdown on child marriage, the prevalence of which is decreasing globally, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund. But Kanyoro said she has observed some pushback to marriage laws.

“There are countries where the age of marriage has been raised to 16 and 17, and people want to go back to marrying girls who are 9, 10, 11, or 12. Those are regressions in the achievements that women have made, which is really a pity,” Kanyoro continued.

Yet private and public spaces are narrowing, said Kanyoro. Domestic violence, for example, is increasingly addressed in public forums and by social movements.

“Women have worked over the years to make sure that they are bringing domestic violence as a public issue. That is a big advantage,” Kanyoro said.

“If you are going to transform society, you need a lot of people to buy in.”

— Kanyoro

Organizing women in public spaces can also help decrease feelings of isolation for women who are experiencing violence. Kanyoro described an “urgency” in supporting social movements and women’s leadership.

“If you are going to transform society, you need a lot of people to buy in,” Kanyoro said.

Community-led movements can be especially critical for women who are illiterate and might struggle to view their own situations in a broader context.

“Our intention was always to support people who help women to understand that domestic violence is not OK, mutilating their bodies is not OK, denying a girl child’s education is not OK,” Kanyoro said. “Once they can be comfortable with saying it is not OK, they can help decide the next action they can take.”

Kanyoro is now casting a wide net with her own next steps, noting that “as a leader, it is really important to keep moving on.” She is the chair of the United World Colleges international board, a board member of U.N. Global Compact, and an Aurora goodwill ambassador. She is also developing local work in Kenya that will soon become public.

“I have worked in the women’s movement for a long time and I would never let my eyes go off of the protection and rise of women, because we have not arrived. The gender issues have not arrived with respect to gender equality,” Kanyoro said.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.