09/10/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

It's Imperative That We Invest in Local Women's Groups

Nearly every woman in Egypt has experienced sexual harassment. In June, the Egyptian government passed a sexual harassment law thanks to years of work by women's organizations like the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, HarassMap, and Nazra for Feminist Studies.

In 2000, 189 nations decided on the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 and they listed gender equality and women's empowerment as the third of eight goals. As we swiftly approach 2015, if we want issues impacting women, such as sexual harassment, taken seriously, we need to focus on policy adoptions because they can be a powerful force for social change.

Who makes policy changes that improve women's lives possible? As was the case in Egypt with their sexual harassment law, most often it is the autonomous mobilization of women in civil society. An analysis of policies on violence against women in 70 countries from 1975 to 2005 reveals that the most important factor driving policy change is women's activism.

The effects of autonomous women's organizing are more important for influencing progressive policy change than the presence of women legislators, the impact of political parties or national wealth. Countries with the strongest women's movement tend to have more comprehensive policies on violence against women than those with weaker or non-existent movements. These movements can make the difference between having a critical legal reform or funding for shelters or training for the police and not having it.

In their article "Feminist mobilization and progressive policy change" for Gender & Development, Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon find that autonomous movements are effective at communicating the social perspectives of marginalized groups, transforming social practices and change public opinion. But in order to achieve this, the movement has to be strong: strong women's movements can command public support and attention, whereas weaker movements have trouble convincing the media and others that their positions and opinion are important for public discussion.

Given the importance of women's movements to creating social change, their health is what concerns me. Women's organizations exist in every country thanks to the incredible energy and commitment of women activists but they often juggle their family obligations and paid jobs with the volunteer work in the women's organizations. Most women activists are volunteers, because their groups function with very small budgets. A survey by the association Women in Development in of 242 women's groups in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region found that their yearly median income was 30,000$.

This doesn't mean that there aren't people interested in investing in these groups. A Foundation Center and Mama Cash study from 2011 involving 145 donors from 19 European countries found that 90 percent of foundations surveyed expressed a desire to support programs benefitting women and girls. But that interest is not carried out: the median percentage of the total number of grants allocated for women's and girls' sole benefit in 2009 by European Foundations was 4.1 percent.

The gap between the interest and the effective action showed by these data reveal these realities: women are, as they have always been, very easy to forget, and although it is recognized rationally that improving the condition of women is important for societies, it is harder to recognize that the work done by women for change is essential to improving citizens' conditions. Also, due to women activists' background as oppressed people, many do not mention that the improvement of women's lives in the region is the result of their continuous involvement and they thus do not dare ask for large grants. Funders need to proactively seek out women's organizations and fund them.

As a founding member and executive director of the Mediterranean Women's Fund, which works with 21 countries around the Mediterranean shores, I understand the powerful outcomes that happen when you invest in women's organizations. For several years, for example, we have invested in women's organizations in Egypt addressing sexual harassment and assault and their impact has been huge in the adoption of the law. Still, their action goes on for the implementation of the law and also its extension with a comprehensive series of amendments to bring the law on sexual violence in line with international rights standards.

We work to strengthen regional women's movements at all levels through awareness-raising, capacity building for activists, strengthening small organizations, and offering support to local, sub regional and regional women's networks. Since 2009, we've invested in more than 100 projects and initiatives and have provided support for the running of local organizations, trainings for young women leaders, and regional conferences for networking and exchanging ideas. I invite other funders as well as individual donors to consider doing the same.

To achieve our Millennial Goals and see the passage of policies that serve women, and serve our communities -- let's invest in local women's rights groups.