Roos Saalbrink

At the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Roos is wearing a t-shirt designed by Marga RH's from Amnesty International's  Write for Rights  campaign.

Roos is wearing a t-shirt designed by Marga RH's from Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign.

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Jennifer Brough (JB): Hi Roos! Can you tell us a bit about your role and Womankind Worldwide, please?

Roos Saalbrink (RS): Hi Jennifer! I’m Womankind Worldwide’s Policy and Advocacy Manager for women's economic rights. Womankind is a global women's rights organisation working in partnership with women's rights organisations and movements in carrying out global advocacy and policy influencing, and programming in five focus countries: Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Nepal. I'm originally from the Netherlands, but studied in London and worked with women's organisations such as the Central American Women's Network (CAWN). I've now been with Womankind since April 2018.

Our policy and advocacy work is divided into the three themes - my focus is women's economic rights. One of our aims is achieving women's access to economic resources. Currently, for example, less than 20% of land is owned by women globally, - which is a very small percentage! And think about the gender pay gap - it’s consistent throughout sectors across the world. Along with women’s economic rights, we also work on violence against women and girls (VAWG), and political participation and leadership. Globally only 24% of parliamentarians are women, another very small percentage showing the pervasive lack of representation of women in politics. 1 in 3 women will experience violence in their lifetime, the most common form of VAWG is intimate partner violence perpetrated by a current or former partner.

Part of my role is to support and amplify the voices of our partners and women's rights movements to influence key decisions and processes, especially related to women’s economic rights, and through forums such as the World Bank and IMF annual meetings,  and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which we attended this year as Womankind. This year's theme on social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure is key for our advocacy around women's economic rights. At CSW we launched a briefing Working towards a just feminist economy: The role of decent work, public services progressive taxation and corporate accountability in achieving women’s rights. Another part of my role is to support sustainable funding for women's rights organisations. Lack of funding is a systemic issue for women's organisations worldwide undermining their work. This happened at my previous organisation CAWN which unfortunately was forced to close due to this issue. Sustainable, unrestricted, long-term, core funding  is key to sustainable women's movements.

I also work with programmes colleagues and partner organisations to develop projects. For example, a project we supported with partners National Association of Professional Environmentalists and National association for Women’s Action in Development in Uganda documented the impact that land grabs are having on women's rights. Through feminist participatory action research 35 women were trained to interview their communities on the impact of land grabs, their access to land rights and compensation. It was a process of collaboration and raising awareness around rights the community and women actually have. This lead to a great report calledDigging Deep. They have since taken action with local and national government and protested at the UN offices in Uganda to raise awareness of these land grabs.

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JB: Can you talk us through the process from researching individual countries and their contexts to writing evidence-based policies and advocacy?

RS: Our advocacy is very partner-led. This is done through seeking partner inputs when developing our strategy, basing our advocacy messages on what partners have told us matters to them and carrying out joint advocacy with partners in global advocacy spaces such as CSW. Our strategic review highlighted issues around economic barriers as well as land grabs. Development strategies that are used by countries, governments and development banks are very focused on extractives and natural resources. This creates a lot of tension on the ground. There is legislation to protect against this but they're not known to communities or respected by governments, let alone by big transnational corporations. A feminist analysis of women's economic rights needs to be rooted in an understanding of the impact of capitalism and patriarchy as well as the impact colonial legacies have on the global economy. I think there is a need for a feminist narrative on alternative economic approaches to how we view the world. We are in a time when people talk about our society and the economy as if they are the same thing, not about the economy as something that can benefit our society. More and more regulations and laws are locked in through trade and investment financial agreements creating mechanisms for companies or private entities to make a profit off what were once considered public goods or common land.

It is important to advocate for coherence of policies that impact labour rights as well as coherence between domestic and international policies. Because global power disparities and transnational corporation abuses happen largely outside of the countries that they are registered or originated in, it is our role in the Global North to hold governments and businesses to account everywhere. To create structural change, it is important to support women's rights organisations and activists to access spaces of decision-making and it is really important not to speak on behalf of someone else if they can speak themselves - our local partners know their contexts far better than we do. Listening and documenting women’s lived experiences to use as evidence is very powerful. Women know what is not right in their lives and self-documentation is a great way of making sure that there is qualitative evidence, not just stats. Because of the role that the economy and economic language play in our society, it's important to step away from just the numbers.

One example is the UN process for a binding treaty on business and human rights, which Womankind is supporting. This is going to take many years but it could have great potential for partners on the ground. Land and resource grabs impact women's rights and their access to land, and can lead to displacement and violence against women and girls. Transnational corporations (TNCs) are responsible for further environmental and labour rights abuses. This treaty can be a mechanism for women and communities to hold TNCs to account. Further, when TNCs pay their fair share of tax, governments are able to spend money on education, healthcare and other vital public services which benefit women more disproportionately.

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JB: Womankind currently works in five countries. How does the organisation identify countries and subsequently local partners to work with?

RS: Our research and experience tells us that where there is meaningful change for women's rights, there's always a precedent of a strong women's movement. This is reflected in our current strategy on movement strengthening: Women’s movements: a force for change. We work in solidarity and partnership with national women's movements in specific countries to provide the depth and long-term collaboration needed to make lasting change. The organisation as a whole developed a country selection process, based on a range of factors. The Policy, Programmes and Learning (PPL) team selected five countries based on those criteria and then moved into in-country scoping and partner due diligence process. Over a year and a half in each country, with support of a local feminist convener, the PPL team did a sense check of the context and the policy environment and met with many women’s rights organisations to see their connections to the women’s movement and other social movements in the country. Now we are at a mid-point. We work with feminist women's rights organisations who work from a human rights approach and currently are working with 48 partners across our five countries, of which 3 are regional networks. There will be a further three focus countries by the end of this strategy, but because the process is just as important as the outcome, Womankind decided to take enough time to work with new partners before jumping into the next country.

JB: How does Womankind work with its partners? Is it predominantly training and funding that is offered?

RS: Our organization-wide approach is movement strengthening and support to partners to develop projects, if needed, but also offering financial support and joint  fundraising. The project in Uganda is a good example of where women are building evidence and creating a track record of our approach for movement strengthening and building. The project is now part of a UK Aid Match project Reclaiming stolen livelihoods.

We work with the women's movement, including more marginalized women’s groups that focus on addressing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination because of their class, race, sexual orientation, disability, age or migrant status, amongst other dimensions. This includes a whole range of organisations, from established organisations registered as charities to lawyers’ networks. For some of the smaller organisations that are on the margins of the women's movement, policy and advocacy capacity building can be really useful. From a policy and advocacy perspective, we support developing understanding of the current situation with evidence, as well as raising awareness of what international policies and laws are already in place and how they can align with national laws or can be used to set standards for national-level law making. More broadly, we support our partners to achieve structural change on issues that perhaps they don't have capacity or time to do. This can be research within our themes to create transformational change on a global level, such as our latest briefing Working towards a just feminist economy, but also support to create longer term accountability mechanisms, such as the UN process of a binding treaty I previously mentioned.

JB: How has the global landscape of women’s rights changed since the organisation first began in 1989?

RS: Since 1989, a lot has changed. Womankind Worldwide is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. We have seen a lot of gains in global policy landscape especially for women’s rights and gender equality. The Beijing Platform for Action was adopted in 1995 as a global commitment by governments on women’s human rights; next year will be the 25th anniversary, which offers a key moment of reflection on progress on women’s rights. Other commitments including the recently adopted Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

However, lack of implementation of these commitments remain a global concern. In addition, there have been some concerning developments since the 80s around neoliberal capitalism, meaning the liberalisation of trade and finance has supported the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few as well as the rise of inequalities, of which we are seeing unprecedented levels. This liberalisation facilitates interconnectedness, meaning changes here have impact elsewhere; climate change being one of the largest challenges that humankind is facing. Of course with the arrival of internet and social media, we are only just starting to understand the implications.

We’re better connected and more visible, making it easier for movements to grow across the globe, but it also replicates discriminating structures such as providing another platform for violence against women and girls. We've just finished some preliminary research with our partners on how online violence and abuse is impacting activists, titled Breaking the Silence: Ending online violence and abuse against women’s rights activists. It is a big issue for our partners. Online violence is part of a continuum of violence against women and girls.

Nevertheless, there has been some good progress. For example, the percentage of women lawmakers from 1997 to 2017 doubled from 11% to 23%; still very small proportionally but a marked increase nonetheless. Last year, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia appointed a cabinet with gender parity, and appointed a largely ceremonial but very important woman president, Sahle-Work Zewde, which is amazing. But progress for women's rights and gender equality is now under threat from shrinking democratic and civil society spaces and the backlash against feminism and the women's movement, particularly around non-conforming gender identities, sexual health and reproductive rights - the Global Gag Rule is an example  of one of those dangerous U-turns.

The rise of inequality and prevalence of nationalism, populism and fundamentalism, as well as the privatisation and dismantling of the state, have specific negative impacts on women's rights and access to services that could have significant impact on women's paid work and redistribute unpaid care workand domestic labour. Within the development sector and the 2030 agenda, the role of the private sector as a development actor and a financier is problematic, as there are clear conflicting interests and lack of mechanisms to hold private firms to account.

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JB: As certain governments across the globe are becoming increasingly conservative, have there been instances of resistance from local actors/government/civilians in the countries you are working with? How do you help your partners to overcome this?

RS: The women's movements and activists we work with know best what needs to change. Women, human rights defenders and indigenous groups are at the forefront of the battle against deforestation and the extraction of natural resources - obviously Bolsonaro in Brazil is a perfect example of overdevelopment. Resistance starts with supporting our partners and listening to them about where they want our support and where they don't. I think international solidarity and visibility of these issues is very important. In the past, I worked with partners in Nicaragua and Honduras to resist plantations and dam developments. Berta Cáceres, one of the movement leaders in Honduras, was murdered because of her resistance. It is important to keep the names of women who are no longer here with us alive, but also to make sure the governments know that is not acceptable. Activists around the world have persisted in putting pressure on different governments to pursue justice for these murders and for the communities that have been significantly impacted by these projects. We raise awareness of the threat to Women’s Human Rights Defenders by calling on governments to create a safe space for civil society. Along with 900 CSOs, we supported CIVICUS’s global statement on the 20th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders highlighting the challenges, including killings, attacks, harassment and intimidation. In some countries there are laws prohibiting women from participating in politics, as well as social and cultural barriers. For sustainable and transformative change, we need women to be able to participate in politics. Continued and collective activism is key. If people are silent and don’t speak out, situations regress and bad situations get worse.

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JB: And finally, how would you define a feminist foreign policy?

RS: For me, it’s about using the privilege that I’ve had - in having had a public education growing up in a secure country such as the Netherlands - to transform change and hold governments to account in solidarity with women worldwide. I cannot accept any policy or actions from a government or a business that means people suffer on my behalf. Using a human rights-based framework in policy making is, I believe, the only tool that we have available to ensure peace and cooperation on a global level. I also think governments in the global North need to acknowledge colonial legacies and imperial histories and the role that these racist, discriminatory and exploitative systems play still today. A feminist approach to foreign policy means understanding where power is, how it’s balanced, and how it shapes people's lives and opportunities. It also means an intersectional approach that looks at the different discriminations that people face and ensures policy works for everyone - in its outcome, not just in its intention. With compassion and listening to one another, using solidarity and our feminist collective voice, I believe we can get very far.


Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough


Marissa Conway