Funding Small-Scale Women-Led Projects in Developing Countries

19th Jun, 2024

Among a list of impressive nominees, the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) emerged as the winner of last year’s Incredible Impacts Programme of the year, promoted by ICCA and BestCities Global Alliance, raising the bar for the sector over the last 12 months and driving real change through passion, education and creativity.

The ACWW was founded in 1929 with the aim of bringing together rural women and their global organisations, addressing the challenges they face as a result of the isolation of their communities, discrimination against women and their lack of participation in political processes. Today, ACWW members span 82 countries and, since 1947, have passed more than 180 policy resolutions by popular vote – the key concept behind each of which is the empowerment of rural women in all their diversity.

HQ got in touch with Tish Collins, Executive Director of the ACWW, to discuss the context and results of its Women’s Empowerment Summit in Mongolia, which gave rise to this award, and the impacts of climate change, social conflicts, and lack of legislation on the protection and support of disadvantaged women.

What were the implications of winning the Incredible Impacts Programme 2023, and how will this recognition impact ACWW’s future initiatives?

It was a great honour and privilege to be invited to present the work of the ACWW to the ICCA Congress 2023 in Bangkok. The audience of conference and convention specialists, most of whom had never previously heard of ACWW, listened attentively to the story of our Women’s Empowerment Summit in Khovd, Mongolia. This summit was a development for ACWW in that it linked projects and advocacy work to help build capacity for our local member society, the NGO Sain Tus Development Bridge. Having convention industry validation and recognition for the sustainability and impact of the summit in Khovd helps spur us on to undertake more such summits tailored to local women’s needs and contribute towards our aims of empowerment for rural women and their communities.

How did this first edition of the summit align with ACWW’s mission and vision, and how will the lessons learnt inform future legacy projects and initiatives?

Although women in rural and isolated communities are crucial to their families and the societies around them, they suffer the worst impacts of violence, climate change and conflict – they are not heard in legislation and remain unprotected and unsupported. The ACWW exists to change that. Currently, domestic violence affects 50% of rural women in Mongolia. To address this problem, we launched our Women’s Empowerment Summit initiative in Khovd, Mongolia, in August 2023, with our long-standing local partner, Sain Tus Development Bridge. We received seed funding from the UNESCO’s Participation Programme, and policy support from Police Scotland.

This first summit involved 323 nomadic herdswomen, from 16 Indigenous ethnic groups, as well as five men. All the women are survivors of domestic violence and living in the most fragile of circumstances. With temperatures reaching -50º in February 2023, the death of herds and the impact of climate had further weakened these communities, and this was a critical opportunity to bring them together, working in the common language of Mongolian. Our objective was to support these women in building their resilience and capacity, with Indigenous women participating as community leaders, sharing knowledge, learning from each other, and developing their advocacy skills. We also wanted to build the capacity of Sain Tus to deliver their annual programmes.

The programme expanded on the impact of a previous domestic violence project, enabling women from nomadic communities to participate. Starting with a harvest festival and continuing with two and a half days of training workshops, presentations, small group work, and data collection surveys, the summit was tailored to the specific needs of participants, whilst aligning with ACWW’s strategic focus on Indigenous communities, women’s health, community transformation, grassroots projects and advocacy, and meet our commitment to numerous of the Sustainable Development Goals.

How does the ACWW plan to sustain the positive consequences of the summit in the communities it has reached?

To assess long-term impact, we will be holding three-month review meetings with local partners to reflect on success and elements that need further attention, measure improvements in access to services as an outcome of activities, and which challenges participants continue to face. We would love to follow this initial summit with a further event, extending to 300- 500 nomadic herdswomen from Indigenous communities, allowing us to assess and compare the living situation for rural and remote women in Mongolia with a particular focus on domestic violence, income generation, and the impact of climate change. Our feedback has already identified the desire for further training around financial empowerment, independence, and human rights.

Feedback also requested training sessions for 300 men from the same communities aimed at empowering them to recognise and change their harmful behaviours. ACWW would also seek to strengthen the direct interface between survivors and local policy-makers. Both of these initiatives are in line with recommendations and input from UNESCO on transforming mentalities and achieving long-term change in communities. Pollution levels exacerbated by climate change are adversely affecting Indigenous women, and health issues are becoming acute. We would like to build in the opportunity for professional medical checks for the participating women, with signposting to relevant follow-up care.

How did the collaboration with UNESCO and local organisations in Mongolia contribute to the development and implementation of the Women’s Empowerment Summit?

Following the summit, the UK National Commission for UNESCO is partnering with ACWW on further projects in rural communities. We have already started planning a similar event in Papua New Guinea, adapted to local needs and reinforced by the lessons learned at the Khovd Summit. Overall, feedback shows that participants are now better prepared to: facilitate the ongoing sharing of knowledge and good practices between different ethnic groups; build capacity in their own communities for planning future events and activities; and create additional networks and strengthen existing ones of mutually supportive local women’s groups.

Alongside the political interventions, the participants in this summit also identified the need to teach the younger generations how to sew traditional clothes and learn traditional songs and dances, which have been registered with UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. We would like to include these elements, but additional sources of funding would be needed based on current realities.

What were the main factors that led to the selection of Mongolia, and how did the local context contribute to the success of the summit?

The ACWW has been funding small-scale women-led projects in developing countries around the world since 1977, and these have run parallel to our advocacy efforts that began more than 90 years ago. The ACWW had previously funded a fruit and vegetable growing project with Sain Tus, with successful and sustainable results of increased nutrition and income generation. After that, we were able to fund a project centred on income generation for local women, around the transformation of animal skins into felt slippers and leather boots. When the request for funding for a project focused on supporting survivors of domestic and genderbased violence was accepted, the concept for this summit was developed to take the scope and results much further and support Sain Tus in developing its own organisational capacity.

Sain Tus is a hub for nomadic women from 16 remote Indigenous communities in the far west of Mongolia, and allows them to come together in one place to build trust, share knowledge and learn from each other. Influencing authority agencies such as the police, and presenting them with an alternative, as advocated by Police Scotland, was also a key element of their success.

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