After burning the midnight oil for many weeks while preparing a US$50 million gender-based project proposal to lay before the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria, Swazi activists found that it had vanished from their country's grant application. They were dumbfounded.
"No one would tell us who had taken it out, but someone told us that women's issues are not a priority for the country," said Siphiwe Hlophe, of the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Positive Living, which assists people living with HIV.
Until last year women were considered legal minors in the tiny, impoverished southern African kingdom of Swaziland, where 33 percent of the population are infected with HIV - the world's highest rate.
Hlophe was speaking at the first International Conference on Women and AIDS, which ended in Nairobi, Kenya, on 7 July. One of the key themes was increasing resources for women, because the fight against AIDS is intertwined with the fight for women's rights: in most countries more women than men are infected with HIV, and studies have shown that gender inequality is a major contributing factor in the spread of the virus.
A bumpy road
Funding for promoting women's rights is hard to come by, and the Global Fund is an example. According to the Association for Women´s Rights in Development (AWID), it was second among the top 20 donors to women's organisations in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005.
The Fund was set up in 2002 and has 136 member countries; to date it has raised US$7 billion and given 400 grants. This year it disbursed about $US1 billion for new proposals, in addition to US$2 billion for existing projects.
Developing countries apply for grants once a year through their Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM), which receives proposals from all a country's AIDS actors, and whose members are elected representatives of the public and private sectors, NGOs, academics, donors and people living with HIV. The CCM should be broadly representative of all sectors working in the field of HIV/AIDS. But this is where the problems start.
In Nigeria, the government handpicked CCM members "so it looked as any government agency", although activist pressure had changed that, said Rolake Odetoyinbo, project director of the Nigerian advocacy group, Positive Action for Treatment Access, which is based in the port city of Lagos.
"Go to the Global Fund website, find out who represents women at your CCM, call her and ask, 'sister, what are you doing for us?' Go the CCM meetings as observers - they won't pay your fare, they won't feed you, but you got to be there and watch what happens," she advised.
Clinical psychologist and HIV-positive activist Susan Paxton, of the Asia and Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, noted that in her region CCMs were male-dominated, and suggested that the civil society representatives to the CCM should include one man and one woman.
Another problem is the complexity of requirements for making proposals, which cover 150 pages and demand much detail. This may ensure accountability and professionalism, but it makes it very hard for small NGOs.
This year, the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe, an umbrella organisation for women's rights groups, hired two consultants for a period of three months, yet their proposal didn't make it into the final funding round.
"It was a painful process and we are still in mourning, but it was worth it," said the coalition's Netsai Mushonga. Besides the experience gained by the organisation, the Zimbabwean CCM has agreed to include gender as a central theme in proposals for 2008.
At the end of a successful application there is a pot of money that will translate into services and programmes for vulnerable women and girls, such as reproductive health, income-generation, and more widespread promotion of rights.
"We need to get really smart to get what we want and master fund-raising skills. It may be boring, but needed to bring programmes to change women's lives," said Sisonke Msimang, coordinator of HIV and AIDS programmes at the Open Society of Southern Africa, a member of the International Soros Foundations Network that promotes democracy and social upliftment.
Shrinking resources for women
"Influencing funding is critical to a women's rights strategy and to shift the value systems," said Zawadi Nyong'o, AWID coordinator in Kenya. [www.awid.org]
Funding for women was shrinking, Nyong'o explained: money was shifting to governments and national budgets under the AIDS effectiveness policy to streamline donor procedure and aid delivery, reducing the flow of funds outside national budgets, as agreed by 90 countries in Paris in 2005.
Some of it was being redirected elsewhere under the agenda of the religious right, and the rest was becoming concentrated on large, well-established organisations, in what Nyong'o described as "a vicious cycle".
"Small NGOs stay small, the large get larger, and there are few in the middle," she said. An 2005 AWID survey of women's NGOs worldwide found that 37 percent have annual budgets under US$20,000.
About half the NGOs surveyed reported receiving less funding than five years ago, roughly one-quarter received more and one-quarter reported no change. Bigger organisations reported the largest growth in funding.
The future of funding for programmes related to women's rights lay in diversifying strategies and relying more on local resources, governments, the private sector and communities, said Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, Executive Director of the African Women's Development Fund.
It would be an uphill struggle, she warned. "The reason we are not getting enough funding is that we are trying to dismantle a system that has been in place for millenniums: patriarchy."