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International Women’s Day: Leadership with a Feminist Lens

March 3, 2021

By Jane Sloane, Paula Uniacke, and Priya Dhanani

Now more than ever, on this International Women’s Day, we need leadership with a feminist lens. As the nexus of conflict, climate change, and Covid-19 has radically altered lives and exacerbated inequalities around the world, women have mobilized to defend and protect their communities as doctors, nurses, and caregivers, as elected representatives, community workers, land stewards, and water bearers. Feminist movements and women’s grassroots efforts have helped to build sustainable peace in the face of yet another global upheaval, but their work has too often been undocumented or unrecognized as true peacebuilding. To recognize women’s crucial leadership, we need a holistic, feminist lens. This means analyzing the causes and consequences of patriarchy, addressing the roots of gender inequality, and providing feminist alternatives for peace. So, how are we doing this at The Asia Foundation?

Supporting Women-Led Organizations and Networks

Woman takes notes while seated in the audience

At crucial moments like humanitarian crises or climate emergencies, the work led by women’s groups, networks, and movements can lead to new laws and policies to help those who are marginalized and vulnerable. We support local, women-led partner organizations through funding and knowledge-exchange to sustain the ecosystem of feminist networks that is vital to respond to the impact of inequality. For example, The Asia Foundation’s long-term partner in Sri Lanka, Women In Need (WIN), draws on their networks, know-how, and knowledge of women’s organizing. WIN conducted a rapid assessment of what was happening to women in the pandemic and what they needed. Based on their findings, they established telephone counseling, legal advice services, and psychosocial support for women experiencing domestic violence, and organized food relief packages for those left without an income. They did this while also advocating for protocols, policies, and resources to address the gendered impacts of the pandemic, including the rise in gender-based violence, the outsized impact of job loss on women in the informal sector, and the demands on women serving as caregivers and frontline health workers. For the success of these efforts and their long track record of transforming women’s and girls’ lives, The Asia Foundation will honor WIN at its forthcoming Lotus Leadership Awards virtual event on April 28, 2021.

Recognizing Intersecting Identities in Peacebuilding

Covid-19, violence, and climate emergencies have created multiple, reinforcing layers of conflict and trauma, including a dramatic increase in domestic violence that has become a second global pandemic. Frontline workers have struggled to manage the pandemic under mounting stress from long hours, the threat of contracting the virus, fear of exposing family members, and community discrimination due to their proximity to infected patients. These interconnected burdens require intersectional, feminist interventions. The Asia Foundation is taking steps to understand and respond to intersecting factors such as gender, age, disability, and ethnicity to build awareness of people’s needs, interests, capacities, and experiences. For instance, in Mindanao, Philippines, The Asia Foundation has continued to gather evidence through assessments and analyses to improve local governance and security while recognizing that women’s leading role in organizing inclusive movements across economic, religious, and political identities has been crucial to the success of the peace process. Now, in the Covid-19 environment, women are again at the front lines of sustaining the peace, with a focus on livelihoods and post-conflict social and economic recovery.

Flexible Funding in Crises and Emergencies

Applying an intersectional lens that considers the barriers created by gender norms and patriarchy is a core principle of feminist funding that provides the flexibility that women’s organizations consistently report allows them to be most effective. As Covid-19 began to grip Asia, The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality program, generously supported by its Lotus Circle, created the Lotus Rapid Response Fund to support local women’s organizations and other partners in 14 countries across Asia. Working with our country offices, these local partners were able to identify and respond to the immediate needs of women and girls, creating safe shelters and hotlines for women experiencing violence, supporting women’s economic resiliency and political voice, enabling young women to continue their studies, and conducting research on the role of gender norms before and during Covid-19. An important part of their work was capturing the stories of Covid-19’s gendered impact to provide rapid research assessments of the pandemic across Asia.

Support for women-led organizations, nimble funding streams, and a deeper analysis of intersectional identities are some of the ways that a feminist lens helps to promote women’s leadership, and they show why this approach is essential for women’s groups and networks to sustain their work. Developing and maintaining this feminist infrastructure is vital, as it means that during times of crisis such as Covid-19, women’s networks can identify and support those most isolated and affected. And sometimes, in a crisis space, the policies and laws these women’s groups advance find broader application in advocacy and organizing for justice.

In the words of Indian academic and women’s rights activist Srilatha Batliwala, “We need to build real solidarity across movements…. Those pushing for environmental change, economic justice, gender and LGBTQ+ rights, and more democratic governance [will] have to join forces.”


Jane Sloane is senior director and Paula Uniacke and Priya Dhanani are senior program officers of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.



About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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