The Masakhane Project: Feminist Philanthropy in action

The patriarchal world order is a simplistic one to understand, based on power dynamics and hierarchical tendencies to control many aspects of our everyday lives and most importantly; to hinder any process that threatens this “order”. It is a convenient world for the patriarchs and the gate keepers of patriarchy that waters oppression and allows it to grow into a beast that feeds on all forms of injustice and continues to lock out any person who dares to question it or rectify the othering it has created.

Unfortunately for this egotistical system, there are moments and situations where it becomes easy to highlight the issues that it harbours and illuminate the injustices. However, we continue to struggle with identifying these issues because patriarchy has become such a normalised part of our existence that in some cases it gets tricky to see. It seeps through and replicates itself even in transformative structures because it takes a lot to constantly be conscious of operating in a non-reformative fashion that has become second nature in how we organise. Many factors make up the root of this phenomena and as the intricacies are embedded deep into the social and political structures, it makes our work that much more needed and relevant to ensure that we unearth the gripping effects of patriarchy and the assumed default of exiting.

Like many other products of this system, access to resources is one of those that continues to cripple and shrink civil society movements and women human rights defender’s work particularly. CAL’s work has evolved and one of these avenues of evolution has taken the form of ensuring access to resources through grant-making in the case of the Masakhane Project. One could consider it a feminist philanthropic act and a deliberate way of ensuring access to resources by women human rights defenders and activists in Africa. 

It is a deliberate act of sisterhood

Feminist philanthropy is characterised by building solidarity, co-creation and collective work as well as highlighting the intersectionality of women’s oppressions. It is a deliberate act of sisterhood. Unlike the orthodox understanding and execution of philanthropy and granting; this effort seeks to co- create and offer support and guidance.  Our need to move away from traditional philanthropy stems from the fact that it has all the makings of a system we fight against, such as excluding the people and or groups intended to benefit from those grant gestures. We find that such an act continues to bare the gap of inequality and suggests that someone else knows what is best for others without engaging them in formulating solutions for issues experienced and lived by them. The remoteness of it adds to this disparity because instead of focusing on long term solutions, traditional philanthropists run after targets and do not address causes of the issues leaving those they aim to “support” in the same hole of social injustice.

The Masakhane project focuses on strengthening lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women’s leadership and enhancing capacities of CAL members and partners to do advocacy through in-country campaigning and learning through action. This is done through provision of financial and technical support by CAL to in-country activists to mobilise, learn together and form collectives that then do advocacy work in their respective counties. Their advocacy work is meant to build on the regional advocacy (campaigning) that CAL is already doing on Body Autonomy, Intersectionality, Access and Accountability.  The collectives are made up of activists across movements including LBQ women, women living with HIV and AIDS, sex workers and young women. 

Phase I of the Masakhane Project included work with collectives in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Currently  in its second phase, the project is now operational in a total of six countries in Southern African, namely; Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

CAL’s ideology is to constantly question and address inequality with contextual, well thought out and conscious solutions that do not jeopardise our integrity as women human rights defenders. CAL with support from its funding partners Lesben-und Schwulenverband in Deutschland (LSVD) and Filia, die frauenstiftung, had found a need to create a way to ensure access to resources to small NGOs/civil society organisations and local activists who may not necessarily have the capacity and access to platforms where funding and granting from “big” donors is done. In realising the inaccessibility of such spaces, which hold great power, it was necessary to create space and ways to ensure that work that is relevant to LBQ women’s organising nationally and sub regionally happens. With this analysis, CAL developed a model of engagement characterised by establishing a consortium of radical African feminists to give direction to CAL’s idea to ensure access to resources for collective women’s rights and sexual rights organising in the sub region. It was also aimed at guaranteeing ownership of the ideas and solutions for issues faced by African women. 

CAL together with local activists and civil society organisations conducted research in the Phase I countries to establish country contexts, which included analysing the various forms of oppression that affect LBQ women, young women, sex workers and Women Living with HIV (WLHIV). It also looked at the state of organising within these countries by the afore mentioned target groups. The aim of this research was to establish what sort of needs or issues were rife within the sub region and assist in applying ourselves as African lesbian feminists to find the solutions by not only relating to our personal experiences but to also have a baseline as a reference for these solutions, by us and for us. The research intention was also to build onto existing (but limited) knowledge of the experiences of queer women and sex workers on the continent. The research aided CAL in securing funding that was inaccessible to its members and partners, based on criteria or eligibility (e.g. being a regional organisation) that is usually dictated by donors; a replication of how “power” operates even within spaces that are geared towards a transformative narrative.

The conclusion of the research showed starkly how the policing of women’s bodies lay inherent in the experience of oppression of all women, an analysis that CAL held in its work and politic and recognising that it is important to return of power and autonomy to the hands of women in-country. With the principle of body autonomy, the Masakhane project also undertook the tag Autonomy Project, an expedient narrative of CAL’s ideology. It was important to have local activists lead the conversation on what was were feasible and combative of this current narrative and it is under this guise that the the Collectives were formed.  

 The Collectives are a structure within the Masakhane Project countries to coordinate the aims and goals of the campaign in country while contributing to and changing sub-regional discourse through feminist dialog and engagement. Once a Collective is formed, they take on the responsibility to forge a country specific campaigns with the aim of bringing change to how women’s rights issues are shaped, shared and documented in order to highlight the intersectionality of daily experiences and identities of women in Southern Africa. 

Some of the work of the Collectives over the past 4 years has involved the creation of safe spaces for women’s rights organising in-country and has cultivated conversation regarding sexual reproductive health and rights and feminism to challenge negative societal norms. Not only did this outwardly express the injustices endured by women, it built a movement of intentional and introspective activists who apply feminist praxis to the knowledge they produced and shared.


The ideals of feminist philanthropy prioritise accountability in its effort to not replicate patriarchy

One of the core feminist principle and one that drives CAL’s work is Accountability- to ourselves as owners of the knowledge we produce, the resources we use and share as well as accountability to the beneficiaries.

The ideals of feminist philanthropy prioritise accountability in its effort to not replicate patriarchy and the various power dynamics that we see in grant making and “support” to groups on the margins. Accountability purposefully asserts monitoring and evaluation to discard any ticking of boxes that goes into Western designs of granting that lack co-creation and understanding of the deeply entrenched uniqueness of different African contexts.

Within feminist philanthropy, it is important to consciously create continuous learning and sharing spaces and approaches that are considerate to each party’s standpoint and comfortability. With the Masakhane Project, CAL’s role is to offer support to the Collectives by holding them through their work and navigating ways of organising that the Collectives deem suitable in their respective contexts. In turn, the Collective play a critical role in shaping how LBQ and women’s rights issues are presented on a regional and international platform, creating a symbiotic relation in the advancement of women’s rights.

In order to highlight the importance of being flexible in the funding process, there is a need to maintain space for the ownership of the ideas and knowledge that the Collectives employ. It breeds liberty of expression of knowledge and advocacy that is relevant to the contexts in which the project is implemented and reconstructing social institutions to impact greater social change. 

It is therefore imperative that we maintain a mindset of transformative approach to our work (and how we resource our work) and not be reformist to avoid limiting our expression of autonomy in a world that forcefully confines us to a violent existence.

As a foundation of learning for the Coalition of African Lesbians, it’s members and partners, this journey of ripping barriers to access resources is a process that we have not mastered yet but are willing to smooth the edges to ensure that we consciously create space for resources and knowledge to be shared, to support and build strong feminist movements, address conflict head on and design, implement and manage solutions to our issues.



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