Advocacy & Alliance Building

Urgent Action Fund has made well over 1,000 grants to women’s human rights activists in 97 countries around the world. Through this work we have developed a rich store of institutional knowledge on the strategies and needs of women’s human rights activists, and the contexts in which they work. And because we are a rapid funder, we can integrate new knoweldge of emerging trends impacting activists in real time.

We created our Advocacy and Alliance Building program to leverage this unique perspective in support of activists. When we perceive a trend, we bring together grassroots activists, feminists, women’s human rights defenders, academics and policy-makers to design the best strategic response. Some projects are designed to raise awareness of a certain issue in activist, funder, and policy circles, such as the Impacts of Counterterrorism project (see below); others are designed to bring activists and policy-makers together to create policy change, such as the Women, Peace and Policy initiative (see below). Examples of our initiatives in Advocacy and Alliance-Building follow.

Impacts of Counterterrorism (ICTM)

After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, governments around the world exploited fear to create oppressive laws governing activism and the expression of dissent. Such laws have been used to justify the arrest, torture and disappearance of women’s human rights and peace activists. Urgent Action Fund has played a leading role in documenting this trend, supporting women’s human rights defenders, and advocating in funder and policy circles.

In 2011, Urgent Action Fund convened a meeting of Asian women’s human rights defenders in Bangkok. The meeting resulted in a development of a collective framework that was used to develop recommendations for policy-makers, funders, and activists themselves. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:

One Indian activist said: “It is very easy for us to brand Islam as a terrorist religion. And gradually you see how that has percolated into the psyche of the people… [Now], it is not only the Muslims that are being tagged but also the non-Muslims. When you are an activist and you join a protest, you can be tagged as terrorist or communist.”

Another activist reflected: “Slowly, slowly, our spaces of demonstrations [have been] stripped.”

Participants said they are under surveillance, harassed, and have even become suspicious of one-another.

In Nepal, a long-time human rights defender described what happened when a landless community started to demonstrate. The government opened fire on them, and justified it by saying the protesters were a threat to the security of the country. “Anything that happens becomes a threat to security.”

This conversation has fueled our work educating funders, allies and government bodies about the impact of counterterrorism measures.


This article is being disseminated widely and was presented to the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) conference in April 2012.

Women, Peace and Policy Initiative (WPP)

After supporting women in responding to violence for over a decade, Urgent Action Fund has made the following observations:

  1. Women need support to engage in pre-emptive peacemaking before violence erupts;
  2. Activists and policy-makers rarely work together to build peace;
  3. Women facing volatile situations rarely have the opportunity to draw on the collective experience of change-makers who have faced similar challenges around the world.

In 2010, we launched the Women, Peace and Policy initiative to address these issues. Two countries were identified as poised for widespread violence: Pakistan and Kenya. Urgent Action Fund invited leading women’s human rights activists, policy-makers and politicians from these countries, and others, to work together and strategize a non-violent way forward. The first meeting was in March 2010 in Amman, Jordan. Participants shared their struggles and lessons learned from activism and policy-making. The women human rights defenders also developed a common analysis of the conflicts in their regions, and reached across divisions of race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, class and country to form strong relationships and working alliances. Upon returning home both the Kenyan and Pakistani women formed new coalitions and designed extensive peace-building projects. Both groups are currently advocating for peace and increased involvement of women in civil society and government decision-making.

In Kenya, WPP participants created UDADA: Sisterhood for Peace to mobilize women’s “shadow parliaments” around the country to discuss peace building, launch Women in Black vigils for peace, and create a women’s shelter to provide survivors of violence the time, space and support they need to recover and prepare themselves for future activism.

In Pakistan, WPP participants have launched a new coalition: Women Action for Peace (WAP). It is comprised of several local grassroots organizations. The coalition sent letters to the Interior Ministry, local governments, and other agencies, demanding that women be involved in local, national, regional and international policy formulation and peace processes. They also asked that prime attention be given to women’s social, economic and political well-being, and that the government undertake a national level response for tackling the radicalization of youth. WAP also held a series of local and national rallies for peace.

Activists from Kenya and Pakistan gathered again in March 2011 in Kenya and decided to create a documentary sharing the experiences of the participants. See a Woman Action for Peace video here.

Defending the Defenders Project

UAF teamed up with Kvinna till Kvinna in Sweden and the Front Line International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ireland to document security threats and risks that women human rights defenders experience in contexts of war and violent conflict, religious extremism, repressive or nationalist governments and post-conflict violence. This research culminated in a security strategies report for women human rights defenders:

Insiste, Persiste, Resiste, Existe (2008)
This document shares the voices of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from all over the world. Each woman speaks of her experience combating violence and discrimination in complex contexts, such as situations of overt or hidden conflict, organized armed violence and rising fundamentalisms in Iran, Colombia, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Serbia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Sustaining Activism Project

Women’s human rights activists engage in work that is challenging, dangerous, and exhausting. Many human rights defenders face threats to their lives and those of their families. Many have lived through the death of colleagues. Because these activists are challenging deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, they face potential retaliation not only by their governments, but also by members of their own community. Women human rights activists are also notorious for meeting the needs of others and not prioritizing their own. The combination of all of these factors can lead to burnout, a very real threat to the sustainability of women’s human rights activism.

Over the years, Urgent Action Fund has seen mounting evidence of this problem. It was an issue that few people, including activists as well as funders, were willing to talk about. We decided the first step was to explore the problem and give voice to the women who live with it on a daily basis. In a research project, we interviewed over 100 activists. The results of these interviews can be found in the Urgent Action Fund publication:

What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? (2007)
This book shares the experiences of more than 100 activists from around the world regarding the sustainability of their activism. Topics include their fears, hopes, exhaustion, exaltation, grief, loss, pain, pleasure, humor, spirituality, funding crunches, backbiting and burnout, self-worth, desire, selfishness, and selflessness. The book played a critical role in the development of Urgent Action Fund’s Sustaining Activism concept and helped to draw attention to this critical issue in funding and activist circles alike.

Since then, Urgent Action Fund has conducted workshops through this initiative on Sustaining Activism and Integrated Security. The workshops bring together groups of human rights defenders to promote and facilitate sharing of information between activists as well as support activists to create tailor made plans for themselves and their organizations.

Global Nonprofit Information Network

The Global Nonprofit Information Network (GNIN) – launched in March 2007 by Urgent Action Fund, Engaged Donors for Global Equity (EDGE), and the Center for Effective Government fosters information-sharing focused on “counterterrorism” measures affecting the nonprofit sector and global civil society. In September 2008, GNIN released seven fact sheets that concisely document how the so-called war on terror hampers charitable activities.

Research conducted by GNIN demonstrates that the role of charities in terrorist financing was greatly exaggerated. Since the September 11th attacks in the United States, no domestic charity has been convicted of materially aiding terrorists. Nonetheless, “counterterrorism” measures continue to inhibit charitable activities, targeting programs designed to address the root causes of terrorism. As GNIN noted, “The penalties threatened and burdens imposed by the U.S. government actively discourage charities from doing vital work in the world’s most troubled areas, places where a positive U.S. presence would support an American message of tolerance and compassion, and better protect global security.” GNIN believes that “a better federal counterterrorism strategy would improve charities’ effectiveness and keep America safer.”