The day after Luz Vargas crossed the border from Venezuela into Colombia, a group of men forced her into a car and told her to forget her family in Venezuela. She would not be able to contact them again, they said.
Vargas thought they were joking. The former radiology assistant, now 38, decided in 2018 to leave her three children in Caracas to find a better-paying radiology job in Colombia. A friend arranged the transportation. She soon realised that her friend worked for traffickers.
“They took my documents, locked me in the room, and drugged me,” Vargas told The New Humanitarian late last year, recounting her experience. “I had to provide services to 10 or 20 men a day.”
Seven months later, Vargas managed to escape in the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. She hailed a bus to Cúcuta, a Colombian city just across the border from Venezuela, in a violent coca-producing region. There, she worked as a prostitute to support herself.
Eventually, Vargas found help at the Frida Kahlo Foundation, a local, women-run NGO that offers therapy and vocational training to survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). The training allowed Vargas to find work selling fast food.
In 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of “a shadow pandemic” of GBV, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That warning prompted a $25 million grant from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), announced in late 2020, to address GBV in 11 countries, including Colombia.
Local women-led or women’s rights organisations were to receive at least 30% of that money – a more than sixfold jump from the less than 5% of international GBV funds ordinarily sent to local groups. The rest was to be distributed to international NGOs or non-women-led implementing partners. The money was intended to help organisations working in humanitarian settings – like the Frida Kahlo Foundation, which received about $16,000 – respond to pandemic-era increases in GBV via prevention and survivor assistance programmes.
Throughout its two-year implementation period, the grant’s designers also hoped it would support local, women-led organisations to plan for the future and develop more sustainable funding. Empowering women-led organisations and contributing to the “localisation agenda” were goals of the grant, noted an independent assessment report commissioned by UNFPA and UN Women and published in August.
Now, months after the funding was distributed and spent, leaders from a handful of these women-led organisations who spoke with The New Humanitarian said that new funding opportunities are either scarce or non-existent, even as needs are rising. Some have had to shut down programmes; others are struggling to continue services that communities have come to depend on.
The funding they received, they said, offered a welcome Band-Aid for a short period but did little to help them build capacity to continue their work or nudge their organisations toward financial sustainability. Reporting requirements and limitations on how the funds could be spent also soured the experience, some grant recipients told The New Humanitarian and the authors of the August report. Some also pointed to what appeared to be a mismatch between their expectations and that of the groups administering the grants – the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women – about the prospects of new or continued funding.
“We really appreciate all the support and funding they have been providing, but what we need is sustainability,” an official from a Palestinian organisation told the authors of the assessment report. “The funding shouldn’t limit the implementing organisations with certain activities within a certain period, then for another period to do different kinds of activities.”
As the report stated: “A lot of progress has been made through the project, but these organisations are very financially precarious, thus progress risks being lost if they cannot find funds to continue their activities.”
The report also questioned whether distributing “relatively small amounts to each local organisation… [and] attempting to address numerous challenges simultaneously, was the most effective strategy to take”, or whether the funds should have been “rolled out in fewer locations through a more well-resourced and integrated approach”.
Juliette Samman, research lead at the firm Samuel Hall, which produced the report, told The New Humanitarian that although the CERF funding “achieved progress in enhancing awareness of and response to gender-based violence” during its two-year span, recipients of the funding “highlighted that to really make a difference in fighting GBV, long-term projects are needed”.
Responding to the report, UNFPA spokesperson Eddie Wright said the agency is striving to boost women-led organisations’ leadership in local initiatives and has made it a priority to strengthen their capacity to access funding as implementing partners.
“With regard to the type of activities it can fund, UNFPA cannot go beyond its mandate,” he added.
Magaly Castañeda, director of the Frida Kahlo Foundation, is one of more than a dozen leaders of local groups that received CERF funding who spoke with The New Humanitarian. Their experiences, along with reporters’ review of the August assessment report and other public documents, point to hurdles and possible remedies for more effective international support to local groups working on the front lines of GBV response, even as needs and funding gaps increase.
“They told us that if we deliver good results, we may be able to access more funds,” Castañeda told The New Humanitarian in November, referring to UNFPA, which administered the foundation’s grant through an implementing partner – Fundacion Halü Bienestar Humano. The UN brought members of her organisation to Bogotá to present their project to other potential funding sources, she said.
The women served by her foundation, she said, “are very worried about the situation for our organisation, knowing that at any moment we may have to close our doors due to a lack of resources”.
‘Challenging operational environment’
Long before the pandemic or the UN secretary general’s 2020 announcement, the need to respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian settings – much less build capacity to address or prevent it – has outstripped funding.
GBV affects 70% of women and girls in some humanitarian contexts – twice the rate outside humanitarian contexts, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. Nonetheless, in 2023, funds for GBV prevention made up less than 1% of humanitarian aid spending, according to calculations based on data published by OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service.
Between 2021 and 2023, a rise in GBV-related needs prompted the UN to amp up its funding requests for such assistance by nearly 40%. Despite this, available funding rose by less than 5%, according to calculations based on OCHA data.
Local, frontline organisations only receive a small fraction of international funds earmarked to respond to GBV. Local and national organisations received less than 5% of gender-specific funding on average between 2018 and 2020. The vast majority of the funding ended up in the hands of multilateral agencies and international NGOs.
The $25 million CERF grant sought to counteract this trend. The August assessment report described the grant as “timely, unique and innovative” and highlighted the requirement that at least 30% of the funds pass through local women-led or women’s rights organisations.
Both UNFPA and UN Women exceeded the 30% threshold, according to the assessment report. The report credited the grant with supporting local groups to build capacity so they could participate in future humanitarian response projects.
But some local partners who spoke with The New Humanitarian said the way the grant was implemented suggested a sharp disconnect between the realities on the ground for their groups and the expectations of those overseeing the funding.
“Demanding too many procedures is not empowering.”
In Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states – areas battered by airstrikes and arson as the military has battled resistance forces since the 2021 coup – the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) ran a GBV project in 2021 and 2022 using CERF funding, distributed by UNFPA. The project included a women-only shelter, training for community leaders on handling reports of sexual violence, and cultural activities.
San Htoi, KWAT’s joint general secretary, said the organisation struggled with procurement requirements.
The UN requires partners to consider at least three vendors when procuring goods or services, she noted. “In the border area, there is one market. So how can we get quotations from three shops?” San Htoi said.
She said KWAT was also burdened by the UN requirement to keep all of its financial documents for seven years. When conflict forced the organisation to flee its office in August 2022, they had to move 10 large boxes of documents, which took up limited space in their new quarters.
“This is an emergency situation. We have to run when there will be a bomb in our area, and we don’t know when,” San Htoi said. “[Demanding] too many procedures is not empowering.”
Wright, the UNFPA spokesperson, said the organisation is “fully aware of the very challenging operational environment in Myanmar”, and that “we try to adapt our programme and accountability requirements as much as possible to meet the circumstances.” Groups can submit documents to explain why the procurement process is not feasible, he added.
But KWAT’s relationship with UNFPA ended in late 2022, after the junta began requiring civil society organisations to register and pay taxes to the military authorities. UNFPA’s implementation partner, the Finnish Refugee Council (FRC), required this registration to continue the funding. KWAT, already registered in Thailand, refused to register in Myanmar.
“We don’t want to give any tax to anybody” in the junta, San Htoi said. The taxes are used to “buy the bullets that kill people in Burma”.
Other international organisations accommodated KWAT’s requests for “cross-border funding”, allowing the organisation to receive funds in Thailand to run programmes in Myanmar and bypass the need to work with the military authorities, San Htoi said.
FRC, which had subcontracted KWAT, took over the women-only shelter after the CERF funding ended. They did not respond to a request for comment.
San Htoi said KWAT’s exit from the shelter harmed its reputation as a reliable, long-term resource for women and girls.
“It makes us less trustworthy to the community,” she told The New Humanitarian.
The assessment report notes that other women-led organisations said they could have worked more efficiently if they had been able to receive CERF funds directly, rather than through larger implementing partners serving as intermediaries.
A catalyst for future funding?
One objective of the CERF grant was to “catalyse” future GBV funding from other donors, according to a 2021 interim review of the grant conducted by OCHA. The results, according to interviews with grantees as well as the August assessment report, were mixed.
A Palestinian women-led organisation recounted to the report’s authors that the expertise and visibility it gained from running CERF-funding activities helped it secure funding from another UN agency.
However, other organisations said they were confused or disappointed after they received less funding than they had believed they should expect or failed to procure funding from other donors.
Despite the financial boost of the CERF funds, most grant recipients who spoke with reporters said the funds did not change an old story: too little money and overwhelming needs. The final report echoed this, stating that limited funds and a short implementation period did not “allow for substantial impact on the GBV response”.
In Palestine, for instance, the report’s authors noted that “most of the subcontractors reported that the limited funding was one of the main challenges they faced during the implementation”.
On top of this, the report noted, limited funds with very specific spending targets risked hampering organisations’ ability to make their own strategic plans, burdening them with commitments for which they would have to raise funds.
Fundación Latidos, based in Colombia, received 40% of the funding it had expected from CERF, according to director MarÍa Victoria Palacios. That initial instalment, she said, was earmarked for capacity building within the organisation.
After the organisation missed a deadline to submit a report to UNFPA, the remaining 60% of the funding was suspended, she explained.
“We did our best to respond [with a first report] about our work,” Palacios said. “We were lacking things, and yes, we are growing and learning. But I did not see any reason why a delay in filing our report should lead to the suspension of the agreement. It was very frustrating.”
Wright, the UNFPA spokesperson, told The New Humanitarian that UNFPA adjusted Fundación Latidos’ funding because of difficulties in the organisation’s “capacity to implement its work plan”.
Similar difficulties were noted in the assessment report, which stated that “processes and requirements were too demanding given the small amount of the grant and the limited time available”. It also noted that many small women-led organisations have “a limited level of professionalisation, relying mostly on volunteers and with limited financial reporting skills”.
The report recommended that UN agencies recognise these challenges and “provide additional support, guidance, and capacity-building opportunities to assist these organisations in understanding and meeting these requirements”.
The funding that was cut from Fundación Latidos’ budget, Palacios said, would have gone toward the “most productive” part of their work: an awareness campaign about the impact of GBV on LGBTQI youth.
“The process would have included boys and girls and teens,” she said. “It was frustrating. But all the same, we have to continue fighting for this campaign, hopefully with UNFPA, or with another donor.”
Progress risks being lost
For organisations like Jagrata Juba Shangha (JJS), an environmental NGO based on the southwest coast of Bangladesh that used CERF funds to operate two women-only community centres that also served as storm shelters for dozens of women in remote areas from May 2021 until the end of 2022, the future is unclear.
That’s an issue flagged in the assessment report: “With limited financial capacity, organisations are not always able to maintain services after the end of the implementation period and also struggle to ensure continued organisational development.”
JJS knows this only too well: A few months after the CERF funding ended, it had to close the centres.
“The centres were in an area where no [government] facilities are available, no [GBV] services are available,” executive director Zakir Hossain told The New Humanitarian in a video call, adding that the project served more than 12,000 people.
He explained that when people are forced to take shelter in school buildings during cyclones, the threat of GBV grows as women and girls share cramped facilities with men, often without electricity or lighting and with few toilets. The women-only centres offered a safer alternative.
The centres also served as community health facilities, offering check-ups, education on women’s health, and support for pregnant women.
“Being countryside people, we are very traditional and conservative,” Dipti Mondal, a 28-year-old mother of two who used the centres, told The New Humanitarian in November. “We don’t often get permission from our family to visit the places we want. But we did get permission to visit the centre.”
Dipti Mondal said one centre served around 30 women from her village, plus additional women from seven or eight other villages.
“Losing this space has left us with numerous difficulties, and we feel the closure of this programme has been a substantial setback for us,” said Aronty Mondal, a 17-year-old student who frequented the same centre.
Wright, the UNFPA spokesperson, told The New Humanitarian that even though CERF-funded activities generally cannot be funded beyond the duration of the grant, UNFPA allocated its own core funding to keep JJS’s facilities open for an additional three months following the CERF implementation period, up to March 2023.
The August assessment report on the CERF grant stated that “the lack of access to funding opportunities, especially for smaller organisations”, was a key challenge in every country where the grant was evaluated, which included Bangladesh.
How much is ‘enough’? The answer differs from project to project.
For Hossain, it’s $45,000. That’s his estimate of what it would cost to reopen both shelters for a year.
Mondal, the mother of two, said: “Please convey to the donors my request to restart the centre as soon as possible, since many of us rely on its support.”
With additional reporting by Farzana Hossen. Edited by Josephine Schmidt.