Halima Mahomed—Women’s voices are critical to help lead strategic interventions

“It’s not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of conception, a matter of understanding substantive equality and the power dynamic in society. In many parts of the African continent we come from a patriarchal structure and that flows out into everyday life. Philanthropy and power can’t be delinked from the issue of identity, and whose identity allows them to have a bigger say is critical.”

By Chris de la Torre

When you ask Halima Mahomed if women indeed represent 70% of the world’s poor, she’ll tell you not to be worried so much with the exact number, but rather to acknowledge that women do make up the majority of those who bear the brunt of poverty, discrimination and marginalisation. Mahomed attributes this to an imbalance of power, admitting the need for a more activist agenda that puts women in decision making positions both personally and in society.

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Photo courtesy Alliance magazine

An article Mahomed wrote for Alliance in September (she serves on the magazine’s editorial board) begins with a quote from University of Witwatersrand’s Adam Habib: “The dilemma of the poor is not about resources. It is about power.” While the ways in which the publication addresses voices of women in philanthropy varies (through its board, range of writers and topics), Mahomed personally sees the combined issues of agency and voice as central, going so far as to say that philanthropy and power cannot be delinked from identity.

As Philanthropy Program Advisor for TrustAfrica, Mahomed is responsible for knowledge building, outreach and advocacy on African philanthropy, and advancing social justice philanthropy. She also serves on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace Working Group. As an independent philanthropy consultant, Mahomed’s work focuses on strengthening the narrative, practice and impact of philanthropy in Africa.

During a recent Skype call, I asked Mahomed to explain the state of gender within the African context, and to give us a few words on women in philanthropy as we approach WINGSForum 2014: The Power of Networks, where we will further explore the topic in one of six plenaries.

WINGS: From your perspective, how are women marginalised?

Halima Mahomed: We know from the research that women are always at the bottom end—when we look at whose voice counts in decision making, when we look at who has access to assets, who has ownership of assets, how financial, reproductive and political decisions are made—we find through studies and through the lived experience of what we see here on the continent, that women always are at the bottom end. We see places where there are increasing numbers of women in decision making spaces but, it’s not just about getting the numbers there; it’s about whether the system supports independent decision making.

It’s not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of conception, a matter of understanding substantive equality and the power dynamic in society. In many parts of the African continent we come from a patriarchal structure and that flows out into everyday life. Philanthropy and power can’t be delinked from the issue of identity, and whose identity allows them to have a bigger say is critical. We definitely need to have more women at the heads of institutions. But we also need to further support the  activist agenda, and we need to have the women who have that agenda in those decision making spaces.

For us on the continent, when we generally look at people, women do not have power automatically. They have to negotiate power in almost every facet of their lives. And for many it is a struggle. You negotiate on one and you have to give up something on the other. We’re saying that we need to have a different power dynamic where you don’t have to fight to have the power to make decisions.

WINGS: In June, your article for Alliance magazine touched on the role of foundations. Speaking from an activist and/or identity point of view, and thinking about the effects of putting women in power positions within the philanthropic sector, how are women currently represented? With regard to the role of foundations, the power to detect potentially dangerous situations on the ground is one example of how increased empathy and intuition can be an asset. Thoughts?

HM: Let’s take the first one: the ratio of women in decision making structures. On the African continent we have very little knowledge of what the landscape of institutionalised philanthropy looks like. Institutionalised philanthropy, in the form of grantmaking, is a very slowly emerging field. Philanthropy has existed for time immemorial on the continent—with women of ten at the centre of this—it just hasn’t necessarily looked like what it looks like in other places. It has been institutionalised but in a very different way.

When I look at grantmaking institutions, we don’t have a list—not even in South Africa, where philanthropy infrastructure is most developing—of what grantmaking institutions exist. So, to tell you the ratio is extremely difficult. What I can tell you is that we are seeing a change. If you compare 10 years ago with now, you are seeing prominent activist women grantmakers taking a central role. Look at the AGN, for example. The founding chair was Janet  Mawiyoo from  Kenya Community Development Foundation. The current chair is Theo Sowa from the African Women’s Development Fund. They weren’t elected because they are women; they were elected because of their expertise, but the value that their activist perspectives, as women, lends to the field, is immeasurable.

What I can say is that the trend is that it’s changing but it’s not changing fast enough, and not enough for women to be consistently at that leadership level. We have many women doing the work at the lower rung, but we need to invest more in systems and support to help develop that next tier of leadership. As a principle, whether it’s women or men, philanthropic institutions in Africa have not invested enough in the second tier. We have many fantastic leaders at the top who have years of experience but we don’t have enough investment in supporting the capacity of the next tier of leadership to go forward. That’s a broad overview.

When I think about the power to detect potentially dangerous situations and how that links to women, I think, again, first it’s about a different type of understanding of how development works and how the world works, and before I look at women I think it really is a conceptual thing. It’s about understanding the underlying systemic root issues—understanding the need to change the foundational aspect, and that, irrespective of whether you’re a man or a women, you’re not going to be on the lookout for detecting these situations if you’re only thinking about alleviating them. It really is a conceptual reorientation.

When it comes to the role of women in this, I do think that you need to have a balanced understanding overall, but  in a context where women bear the brunt of injustices, if you have a woman at the head of a philanthropic institution working in an area of conflict, she is going to understand how conflict affects the lives of women differently from the way men do.

It’s not about being right or wrong or better or not better; it’s about having a much more balanced, holistic, nuanced understanding. It’s not saying women should be leaders of everything but that women’s voices are critical to help develop, shape and lead strategic interventions. This is not a competition; it’s about saying how do we understand holistically what’s happening on the ground and how do our philanthropic funds then support efforts to change what’s happening on the ground in a very long term structured manner. The answers you get for that could be very different depending on gender but also depending on orientation.

WINGS: You serve on the editorial board of Alliance magazine. What sorts of topics do you come across on a daily basis that deal with women in philanthropy, or anything specifically that you may be working on that would affect women and girls and social justice from a gender standpoint?

HM: The board is  a sounding out space for things that are emerging in the field and for things Alliance would like to take forward; and also to bring up emerging issues. In my role as an editorial board member, when I think about a topic, underlying there is always a gender link. It depends on what your orientation is and how you seek to insert the gender links within the work you do. In philanthropic institutions there’s always been a debate about whether or not to have a gender-specific programme. Does mainstreaming gender lose it or does having a gender-specific programme silo it? There’s no right answer; it’s a combination of approaches dependent on context.

I’m in the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace Working Group and I also work with TrustAfrica on the Africa philanthropy program. The agendas for both dovetail very much. Agency and voice are two critical issues. For me the core is about how we support women’s agency and voice. That helps to inform what we do at PSJP and TrustAfrica. PSJP doesn’t have any specific gender programmes; it’s an informal space that works to advance and improve the practice and impact of social justice philanthropy.

When you talk about social justice you automatically think about who is marginalised. On the African continent, the marginalised women. There are spaces where we need to have a specific focus on women and there are spaces where we have an emphasis on women but within a broader agenda. You have to balance it. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

WINGS: How does TrustAfrica address this issue, specifically with its Neighbourhood Support Programme (NSP)? How are the organization’s resources allocated to deal with the combined issue of gender, agency and voice?

HM: The NSP is not a full programme. TrustAfrica works on a lot of structural issues and on a pan African level. The NSP was really an idea that says while we may be a pan-African institution, while we may be working on all these high level things, we don’t want to be an elitist institution. We want to be located where we are and grounded where we are and try to make some grants to neighbourhood initiatives so that we support and are part of the context around us. With regards to specific work on this issue, TrustAfrica had a programme which focused specifically on Enhancing Women’s Dignity, which focused on curbing gender violence and expanding women’s political participation. Beyond the program, however, we see the issue of agency and voice as central to all our program areas.

In a context where women’s agency is restricted at so many different levels, and women’s voices marginalized, our programs, in different ways, seek to address this.  African agency is about the capacity of Africans to make their own choices about their future, For us that’s the lens that helps to inform all of our work. It’s about shifting the foundations of the development trajectories.

There’s a long and often contentious debate about the different types of philanthropy, and it detracts from the essence of the issues. On the African continent we live in a context where poverty and inequality and deprivation and lack of access to resources is a reality, where people are living really hard lives. You need to have a very holistic perspective that allows for different types of tools within a framework of long-term systemic change. There are a range of interventions that need to happen holistically. At TrustAfrica we’re interested in advancing advancing philanthropy that leads to a structural transformation, but not in isolation of immediate contextual necessities.

We need to have a very different and much more nuanced debate in the African context. The debate that often happens in the global north doesn’t fit in with the kind of debate that we are increasingly having here, and there really is a bit of a disconnect. How do we identify and find those levers that allow change to happen? Those levers are underlying, the things that you can’t measure in a metric. It’s about finding those underlying systemic issues, and it’s often very hard because they involve power.

WINGS: Women In Philanthropy is one of a set of plenaries we’ll explore at WINGSForum in Istanbul in March. This idea of being out of touch in the global north resonates. Any advice on how to keep a well-balanced discussion?

HM: I think the first thing—and WINGS really does try to do this—is to balance the voices, so that you have voices coming from different perspectives. And it’s not enough to have voices coming from different regions because in Africa we also have voices that have been schooled in a global north discourse. It’s about having people who come from a different perspective. One of the things we all don’t do well is being open to voices that don’t necessarily agree with what we’re saying. Because—and I say this even for the global south—it’s easy for one narrative to dominate, but we have to recognize that there are different narratives and make spaces for these. So, I would say bring voices from different regions but mix up the perspectives so that you get a healthy debate. And ask the hard questions.

We need to do more, much more, so that the voices and priorities of  those who bear the brunt of poverty, marginalisation, oppression and vulnerability—majority of whom are women—do not  just inform, but have the agency to lead the development agendas of our continent and of their own lives.


Chris de la Torre is managing editor of WINGS.Road to Istanbul—A journey through networked philanthropy charts the course of global philanthropy over the weeks leading up to WINGS Forum 2014: The Power of Networks. Women In Philanthropy is one of six plenaries for the Istanbul event. Follow on Twitter with #WFnetworks. For event details and to register, visit the WINGS Forum website. More WINGS interviews here.

One thought on “Halima Mahomed—Women’s voices are critical to help lead strategic interventions

  1. Pingback: Clinton and Gates Foundations partner to track women’s development gains | Philanthropy In Focus

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