Australia’s only development NGO focused entirely on gender equality, IWDA is supporting feminist movements

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Group of women of colour smiling and holding up banner

Global feminist movements are key to achieving gender equality for all. That’s why the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) is supporting diverse women’s rights organisations all over the world. 

As Australia’s only development NGO focused entirely on gender equality, IWDA directly supports women’s rights organisations in the Asia Pacific region, through meaningful relationships and partnerships, such as that with MECCA M-POWER, a social change program focused on advancing gender equality.

Executive Director of MECCA M-POWER, Lisa Keenan says, “Since 1985, IWDA has been at the forefront of improving the lives of women and increasing their influence in our region. This is key to our national security, regional prosperity, and a sustainable climate.”

First established 37 years ago, IWDA was initially founded by three Australian women who started the organisation in a living room in Melbourne. 

At the time, many NGOs talking about gender equality were led by men, so the three women behind IWDA had a vision to create a women-led organisation that placed gender equality at the centre of development practice. 

“Today, our purpose remains to defend and to advance the rights of women,” says Bettina Baldeschi, CEO of IWDA. “We see ourselves as part of the global feminist movement.”

As part of that global feminist movement, Baldeschi says the current most pressing issue for gender equality is that women and girls all over the world are still fighting for their basic human rights.

“Too often, organisations like ours are working to defend our rights, to hold the line rather than to actually advance our rights.” 

Baldeschi says, “The crisis associated with COVID, with climate and with civic space being increasingly restricted in many countries where we’re working and beyond– all of that has been affecting women’s rights. Then, of course, we’ve witnessed the robbing of women’s bodily autonomy through the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”

In the Asia Pacific region, IWDA has seen the level of gender-based violence to be one of the greatest concerns for women. And although progression of women’s rights has been slow in this region as well, Baldeschi sees courageous women leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific who are speaking out and demanding change.

“We need to be able to have dedicated resources to listen and support their work, particularly when those women find themselves in countries with authoritarian regimes and speaking out for change is actually dangerous,” says Baldeschi.

Research on 70 countries over four decades showed that the existence of strong feminist movements was the most significant factor impacting a country’s policy response to violence against women.

The research also showed that action by autonomous feminist movements is more significant than participation of women in politics, the politics of the government or the country’s wealth.

“If the evidence is showing us that the driver of progressive change is funding feminist movements, we need to have focus on dedicated resources to do that. That’s why we exist.”

When it comes to successful feminist leadership, Baldeschi explains the need for “power sharing and power building”. She says that when women recognise their power and use that power with others, impact is multiplied. 

Baldeschi adds that feminist leadership requires showing vulnerability, moving beyond self-awareness to deep listening, creating safe spaces for uncomfortable conversations, being accountable and being transparent. 

With knowledge on the importance of feminist leadership and movements, IWDA is focusing on two particular movements in the next 12 months.

Firstly, the Myanmar democracy movement.

Back in February 2021, Myanmar had a coup where the democratically-elected government was removed and human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated by the military across the country. 

“180 women have been killed by the military, and we estimate that more than 3,000 women are being detained,” says Baldeschi. 

“IWDA has been partnering with ethnic women’s rights organisations in Myanmar for several decades now. We have really deep connections in the country and over that time, we’ve invested in feminist leadership training programs for young women.”

IWDA’s second focus? The Fiji women’s rights movement.

Baldeschi says the rates of violence against women are more than double the global average in Fiji. IWDA is determined to support the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement to continue running leadership programs for adolescent girls that help equip them with the confidence to create positive change in their communities and speak out about violence against women.

Overall, this support from IWDA in the Asia Pacific region is about connecting Australia in meaningful ways to bring about a more peaceful and sustainable region.

“This isn’t about a paternalistic, deeply problematic, colonial approach,” says she. “This is about recognising the power of others in finding their own solution to their own context and building meaningful, trusted relationships around shared values.”