Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights is a global women’s fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women’s human rights activists at critical moments. We intervene quickly when activists are poised to make great gains or face serious threats to their lives and work. Urgent Action Fund’s strategy paves the road for a new type of philanthropy.
Urgent Action Fund operates two programs:
- Rapid Response Grantmaking: Activists apply for grants of up to $5,000 USD in any language on any day of the year and are guaranteed a response within 72 hours.
- Advocacy & Alliance-Building: We leverage the power we have as a funder to advocate for women’s human rights activists.
What are “women’s human rights defenders”?
Urgent Action Fund supports women’s human rights defenders (or WHRDs) throughout the world. This term “human rights defender” is used by the United Nations and many international organizations to recognize and protect activists who take on some of the most challenging issues in their communities and countries.
According to the United Nations, a human rights defender is someone who acts “to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups. Human rights defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.”
The United Nations provided human rights defenders with international recognition and protection through the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). The UN General Assembly adopted this document in December 1998 after 14 years of negotiation.
While the United States projects a pro-human rights image to the world, the U.S. often fails to advocate for human rights defenders when they are working in countries with substantial energy resources or that are of geopolitical or military importance to the U.S.
In addition to the challenges human rights defenders face, women’s human rights defenders often face serious backlash not only from government authorities, but also from within their own communities, because they are transgressing traditional gender norms. Furthermore, funding is not prioritized for women’s human rights defenders. Both Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, and the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC), were founded to provide support and advocacy for women’s human rights defenders. WHRDIC writes: “Those advocating for women’s human rights – no matter what gender or sexual orientation they claim – are in fact human rights defenders. Their gender or the nature of their work has made them the subject of attacks, requiring gender-sensitive mechanisms for their protection and support.”
Urgent Action Fund, as part of women’s rights movements worldwide, supports women’s rights defenders striving to create cultures of justice, equality and peace. We provide Rapid Response Grants that enable strategic interventions, and participate in collaborative advocacy and research. We are led by activists, rooted in feminism, and strengthened through solidarity.
Values and Change
We believe that the best way to support activists seeking to effect systemic change is to adopt a flexible, adaptive grantmaking approach that supports the creativity and vision of grassroots leaders and a diversity of tactics. This is because grassroots activists are constantly devising new methods for creating change – witness the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, which caught the world by surprise. Flexible grantmaking allows activists to innovate and respond to unanticipated situations as they arise.
Within this flexible framework, what then are the ingredients of systemic change? First, we believe that grassroots leadership and community action are crucial. Urgent Action Fund supports long-term change efforts by supporting the vision, creativity, and agency of local activists – and not telling them what they should be doing.
Second, we believe that women have a unique contribution to make. The link between women and peace-building is well known but poorly supported. Women are often excluded from peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction processes. Urgent Action Fund supports women as agents of change in their communities.
Third, it is critical to recognize that changing oppressive systems often results in violent backlash. As one of our grantees and advisors, Almut Rochowanski, said: “Women fighting for women’s rights challenge the underpinnings of patriarchal society – and that elicits a violent reaction. If you want social change, you have to have security. UAF understands this, that investing in activists’ security is not only a moral imperative – it is critical to social change… And it’s also a good investment! These women have built networks and knowledge; they’ve raised money to continue the work. If their work falls apart because of a security threat, you lose all that. But if you make a small investment in security, you keep all of these assets, all the potential, all the momentum.” Urgent Action Fund provides Protection & Security grants to women’s human rights activists.
Fourth, funders, politicians, and policymakers play an important role in systemic change. Therefore, Urgent Action Fund leverages the power we have as a funder to advocate on behalf of our grantees with larger foundations and in political and policy circles.
And finally, we believe funders must see ourselves as part of movements for change, and hold ourselves accountable accordingly. Funders, then, have an opportunity to play a role in shifting the power dynamics between funder and grantee and between the global north and global south. This includes everything from how, where, and from whom we raise money, down to the daily interactions we have with activists and our donors. Urgent Action Fund trusts activists on the ground to identify effective strategies that we are committed to financially supporting and advocating for. We respect their knowledge, and honor their autonomy and dignity in all that we do. As Rauda Morcos, a Palestinian queer activist who lives in Israel, told us, “Urgent Action Fund listens, communicates, and adapts to the needs of activists. When you speak with UAF, you’re speaking at eye level: activist to activist.”
Our values and concept of change are inextricably intertwined, and all of our programming flows from this source.
In 1997, activists from around the world said they needed a Fund that provides grants quickly and with very little bureaucracy in order to respond to critical human rights situations. Most funders required several months to process a grant request, but many interventions had only a small window of opportunity in which they could be effective. This was especially true in areas experiencing armed conflict or escalating violence.
To respond to this need, our co-founders, Ariane Brunet, Margaret (Mudge) Schink and Julie Shaw worked with eighty activists and donors from around the world to design the Rapid Response Grantmaking model. Urgent Action Fund’s first grant was made within a week of receiving the first donations. Since then, Urgent Action Fund’s annual budget has grown from $100,000 to $1.5 million USD. We have provided well over a thousand grants in 97 countries; we have grown our grassroots global advisory network. Our unique philanthropic strategy has served as a model for other funds, and we are responding faster than ever to the needs of women’s human rights activists.
By 2001, a significant portion of Urgent Action Fund’s Rapid Response Grants were going to women’s rights groups in conflict-affected areas of Africa. African activists called for the establishment of an autonomous Urgent Action Fund in Africa, pointing out that this would be the most empowering and just model of global grantmaking. Kaari Betty Murungi, a Kenyan lawyer and former Urgent Action Fund Board member, became the Director and co-founder of Urgent Action Fund-Africa, and a unique model of sisterhood was born. Urgent Action Fund – Africa supports all grant requests on the African continent, and develops strategic initiatives relevant to the African context.
In October 2009, Fondo de Acción Urgente de América Latina (Urgent Action Fund-Latin America) launched in Bogotá, Colombia. Urgent Action Fund – Latin America is led by Eleanor Douglas, a former Urgent Action Fund Board Member. The Fund supports all requests coming from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and develops strategic initiatives relevant to these regions.
We are proud of this unique Sister Fund model and believe it is one of our greatest strengths. Each organization is autonomous and handles grantmaking and fundraising for its particular region. It is through these deep, sisterly relationships that we practice sharing power, challenge hegemony, and collaborate on advocacy, strategy, and fundraising, while adapting to the unique circumstances in different regions of the world.