Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF)

Posted on by Marijana Čanak

Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights – UAF assigns fast grants in determinative and strategic moments for supporting women’s human rights, trans and non-binary persons worldwide. The fund is currently focusing on issues of the intersection of gender rights and the administration of justice for persons with disabilities.

Unlike most other funds, UAF accepts applications in any language each day of the year; it answers requests within 72 hours, and the grants are ready in 7 days.

We talked to Elsa Saade about the work methods of the fund, its priorities, urgent actions, and achievements of women’s organizations hitherto supported by the UAF. Elsa Saade is a cultural and social activist from Lebanon. She is an aspiring historian, a political artist, a mobilizer, and a Program Officer at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF), based in New York City.

How did you start to work with Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, and what motivates you to engage in activism?

Before I joined UAF, I used to work in several feminist collectives who needed funds to make change, and UAF was one of the main reliable progressive funders who we reached out to when we needed urgent support. This was how I got introduced to UAF. After I moved from Lebanon to New York City to pursue my masters in history, I joined the UAF team as a program officer for the portfolio which includes the Middle East and Europe. I am now observing and engaging in philanthropy with a background in activism and academia.

What motivates me to constantly support and take part in activism is witnessing and engaging in the incessant push of our movements in so many parts of the world towards change. I wake up every day to meet new and old groups/individuals who despite it all, find spaces of hope and resilience at the intersections of multifaceted struggles. We learn so much from all our partners on the frontlines, and we hold pride in being able to support them at the intersection of their work on gender and activism. Being part of a feminist grantmaking organization, I am also inspired to shift the discourse of funding towards a culture of abundance for frontline movements rather than one of competition. This nurtures more movement building and collaborative activism which I love to witness as well.

How was the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights founded? What is the basic idea behind your work?

Urgent Action Fund was founded in 1997 when activists from around the world said they needed a Fund that provides grants quickly and with very little bureaucracy in order to respond to critical human rights situations. Most funders required several months to process a grant request, but many interventions had only a small window of opportunity in which they could be effective. This was especially true in areas experiencing armed conflict or escalating violence.

To respond to this need, our co-founders, Ariane Brunet, Margaret (Mudge) Schink and Julie Shaw worked with eighty activists and donors from around the world to design the Rapid Response Grantmaking model. Urgent Action Fund’s first grant was made within a week of receiving the first donations. Since then, Urgent Action Fund’s annual budget has grown from $100,000 to 12 million USD. We have provided well over two thousand grants in about 100 countries; we have grown our grassroots global advisory network. Our unique philanthropic strategy has served as a model for other funds, and we are responding faster than ever to the needs of women and gender human rights activists.

Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights is a feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and transgender human rights defenders at critical moments. We intervene quickly when activists are poised to make great gains or face serious threats to their lives and work. We respond to requests from women’s human rights defenders within 72 hours and have funds on the ground within 1-7 days.

Urgent Action Fund builds the resilience of women’s rights and LBTQ rights movements in three ways:

  • Rapid Response Grantmaking: We award rapid response grants to women and transgender human rights defenders in Central Asia, the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe, the South Caucuses, Russia, Turkey, the United States, and Canada. Activists apply for grants of up to $8,000 USD in any language on any day of the year and are guaranteed a response within 72 hours.

Based on your experience so far, what do you consider to be the main risks in the work of feminist organisations focused on disability rights and justice?

For years, disability justice had been pushed to the margins of gender justice work which would be a big risk to the success of our movements from an intersectional lens. With a more intersectional approach to feminism and the vocal leadership of women, trans and gender non-conforming folks with disabilities, parts of the feminist movements have been increasingly aware of the integral part of the movement (disability justice advocates) up against a central form of oppressive systems (ableism). Without a constant awareness about the importance of embracing disability justice as an integral part of our movements, there would be a big risk of failure for all collective actions towards liberation from all oppressive systems on the basis of exclusion.

Disability Justice and rights continue to be side-lined at-large, especially around access to different spaces that do not consider different access needs. Disability Justice activists get faced with barriers (communication, physical, mental, etc…) to access certain spaces which stifles their full participation, engagement or representation of themselves and their communities.

From a funder’s perspective, it has been very important for us to challenge ableism in the way we do our work – it has been a learning curve. Ableism – which in short would be discrimination in favor of able-bodied people – has infused itself in every aspect of organizations’/donors’/programs’/services’ operational frameworks for years. Support for disability justice activists has traditionally come from a “charity” perspective which deepens the distance between “donor” and “receptor” and further imprisons folks with disabilities in ableist isolation. Support needs to shy away from a top-down charity approach, to a peer-to-peer partner approach, making sure funding is expansive enough to cover broader needs, concerns and issues faced by frontline defenders.

On a more micro scale, the risks we’ve observed more recently in relation to disability justice came with the shift into remote work and virtual life after COVID started. Even though working virtually creates more access for many, we have observed that movements are not digitally equipped to prevent digital security threats.

The UAF provides grants when unexpected situations of security or opportunity arise. Would you give us a few specific examples of such situations?

UAF looks at security holistically – which really means we do not isolate physical security from digital and psychological security. Our partners also have a big say as to how they define their own security. Our security grants have ranged from legal support, relocation support to psycho-social and medical attention to digital security training or infrastructure security. All depending on what will keep movements and activists safe at unexpected times that are unbudgeted for.

Now given one of UAF’s main pillars is advocacy and alliance building, we hold our opportunity grants close to heart. Moments of emergency in relation to opportunity are normally tied to campaigns that are born at the spurr of the moment. From climate change, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, disability justice, and all the intersections that come along those lines, we’ve been able to support protests, campaigns, trainings and many other tools of advocacy.

How exactly does UAF evaluate what is an urgent situation and what is not? We live in a world where everything is urgent. On the other hand, when everything is urgent, nothing is. We’ve somehow learned to live with it.

Coming from Lebanon, I know exactly what learning to live with the urgent means and I love this question – thank you for bringing it in. Now my answer is to myself as much as it is to you folks – I understand how easy it is to adapt to urgency. It’s both a need and a defense mechanism which I’ve seen in many movements! However, I really think it’s important to identify urgency, define it, and isolate it from the many other obstacles on your course. Someone is out there waiting to support you once you name it. And when you put what is most urgent and unexpected on the side or behind you, one can work more easily with the longer term emergencies. The definition of urgency is expansive, and we’ve supported different aspects of urgency in the past (might even expand to other aspects in the future) but for now, the urgencies we tackle are those that are unbudgeted for; the moments which were not expected and planned for. Many funders out there support longer term urgent work – few focus on needs that come up along the way requiring more flexibility and more agility. This is where UAF comes in for women, trans and non-binary folks.

UAF is currently focused on the intersection of gender justice and disability justice. What are some of the biggest challenges for LGBT disability organisations you’ve worked with?

At the intersection of gender justice and disability there is a spectrum of needs, struggles and successes. What we have observed primarily is that there generally is a lack of leadership of women, trans and non-binary folks with disabilities amongst the already existing organizations for people living with disabilities or PLWD. Our support is driven with an intention to support the louder engagement of women, trans and non-binary folks with disabilities in and outside disability justice focused work.

There also generally tends to be a lot of isolation of PLWDs from spaces outside of disability justice work and that is another issue we are very conscious of. It is important for our communities to be seen and recognized in different parts of justice work, whether it’s climate justice, gender justice, indigenous rights, anti-racism work, etc… Many feminist disability justice groups have limited representation of leadership, staff, board who are from more marginalized communities such as LBTQ+ communities. This, as we’ve observed, limits the representation of and does not center the various intersectional experiences, including trans, queer and gender non-conforming/non-binary folks.

In relation to the point above, we are also conscious of the fact that traditionally the way PLWDs were and might still be supported is through a “charity” framework, which we do not adopt and certainly work in big contrast to. We do however recognize the importance of work being done by both disability rights and disability justice activists. These communities face a breath of multiple issues that intersect with their experience of living with a disability, yet it is not seen beyond the binary (sexual minority with a disability/ies, mainly). People do not see or make the connection about the intersection of lived experiences and identities (that already make them even more vulnerable and marginalized) also impact their sexual and reproductive health, socio-economic status, and access to other things that cis-gender/heteronormative and able-bodied folks take for granted to improve their quality of living.

We do focus on the framework of access but we also recognize the wider spectrum of work being done at the intersections of different struggles. It is thanks to many mentors from the disability justice community that we at UAF have learned and keep aiming to learn. It is also thanks to many partners we’ve supported that we’ve observed patterns and learned much about how different the contexts are depending on countries around the world.

Would you name some of the organisations you’ve supported so far and their biggest achievements in this field?

I will tread carefully when it comes to naming our partners since many of them have asked for confidentiality. However, I’d be happy to share some examples of achievements we’ve seen during the course of our growing grantmaking to PLWDs.

Of course, the most prioritized issue we’ve seen from applications to UAF have been focused on access needs. Access to services and programs, especially during the start of the pandemic was much needed, and at that point, UAF was doing more humanitarian support from a justice lens. Accordingly, some of the more significant achievements of our grantees then, was at the level of provision of aid/assistance to communities of PLWDs to survive during the pandemic. Given these communities were isolated already, the further layer of lockdown restrictions put in place during the pandemic to slow down outbreaks, led to even more physical and social isolation. Public policies left out these already vulnerable community members and lack of mobility for some to leave their homes made it increasingly hard to access anything outside their homes.

Requests supported PLWDs in accessing food, medicine, hygiene products, laptops to work and connect with others, PPE, psycho-social/mental health/counseling support, connectivity with other community members via online meeting platforms such as Zoom. Some grantees also reported developing more capacity or strengthened capacity to provide better programming/services to people with different access needs. They also honed these skills and leveraged them beyond the disability movement to be applied to other movements/sectors to make activities, such as advocacy, more accessible to everyone during the pandemic’s lockdowns.

One example from grantees working on Covid assistance includes a woman and PLWD led group in Turkey who realized how much information about COVID19 was not as accessible and fast as it should be for many PLWDs. With the grant, they decided to make more information specific to women with disabilities available to them by convening more women with different types of disabilities and doing more collective work. During the pandemic, they were able to host different webinars on increased GBV during isolation and disability-based discrimination during the pandemic, strengthen their network of women with different disabilties, and reach women with disabilites who can’t participate in online activities for empowerment and solidarity with other alternative ways with infographics.

Another issue which we focus on is security – we offered security grants which helped WHRDs with disabilities who are targeted physically or digitally because of their activism, to relocate, improve their digital security, etc… so that they can continue their activism. For example, we offered a security grant to support a disability rights whrd in Russia to relocate to safe housing and continue her activism after facing family violence. The WHRD found accessible housing to support her disability, secured safe space to continue to raise awareness around domestic violence and specificaly violence against women with disabilities. She was able to create a part of her organization’s website for the visually-impaired and blind. She also put out zines created for women with disabilities and lectured at an exhibit to tell the story of her artivism, navigating the modern art world as a woman with a disability.

And of course we also focus on opportunity grants. For instance, we supported a US-based organization led by Black and Brown disability rights activists to respond to a gap in addressing the needs of LBTQ+ women living with disabilities. The group organized virtual advocacy groups to take advantage of advocacy opportunities together. They also updated their website to be inclusive of Black and Brown LBTQ+ folks with disabilities by adding a PrideAbility microsite to provide resources as well as networking space. The group took advantage of Pride month to raise awareness around the unique needs of Black and Brown LBTQ+ folks who have disabilities and to provide a safe space for folks with intersecting identities and disabilities to network and share resources. Sharing some feedback we got from a grantee partner “UAF support at this critical time allowed us to emerge as a leader in facilitating inclusive, accessible advocacy and movement/resistance spaces, not just within the disability community, but across progressive movements. Our liberating webinars and other efforts provide models for other organizations and activists, and we are currently fielding requests for support and technical assistance. This increased profile allows us to better leverage our expertise, and therefore our capacity to respond, collaboratively and across sectors. Increased partnership opportunities also enhanced our capacity to respond to unexpected advocacy opportunities by building our networks and thus magnifying our potential impacts through the power of solidarity and community.

In addition, we gained expertise in producing accessible content across many topic areas, working with diverse experts and activists, facilitating conversation and connection, and strategizing inclusive responses to address oppressive conditions. We learned new ways to be considerate of and collaborate across movements. People’s questions and comments during and after webinars made us think about things in new ways, educated us about issues we were not aware of, taught us new tactics and strategies and overall made us stronger. The process of completing these activities also taught us a lot; for example we learned about using Deaf ASL interpreters, to improve the quality, authenticity and cultural relevancy of ASL interpretation and support the Deaf community’s autonomy and Deaf culture. We were able to try new things, make mistakes (i.e. hearing ASL interpreters vs not budgeting for Deaf interpreters etc.), and learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes. We will draw on this experience to strengthen all our advocacy and programming going forward.”

Another global achievement was by one of our partners, Women Enabled International (WEI), who during B+25 and GEF pushed for more funding commitments from govts for women’s rights, and raised awareness for more inclusion of disability in GEF. As part of the Action Coalition on Feminist Movements and Leadership, they worked in partnership to develop a goal and set of targets specifically related to funding for feminist movements, under which many governments, philanthropic organizations, and private sector actors made commitments. One success was the Canada representatives advocating for WEI with UN Women and France around the issue of accessibility ahead of the Paris Forum and making a financial commitment.

What kind of applications are you looking forward to getting in the future? Have you noticed that there are some neglected issues in the feminist and disability rights movement?

We welcome any and all women, trans, non-binary led collectives/organizations/groups, both registered and unregistered working on any issues that come up unexpectedly.

What is your most important message for disability organisations led by women?

We will not abide by isolating frameworks – this we learned from communities of people with disabilities which some of us on UAF staff are part of too. Speak up. The world needs much more of you.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from Johanna Hedva’s piece in the project called Get Well Soon which a friend sent me recently:

“We tend to place illness and revolution opposite each other on the spectrum of action: illness is on the end of inaction, passivity, and surrender, while revolution is on the end of movement, surging and agitating. But maybe this spectrum is more like an ouroboros: one end feeding the other, transforming into, because of, made of the same stuff as the other.

Many thought the revolution, when it came, would look like how it’s looked before: a protest in the streets, some good looting and riots, a coup, a mutiny. The world has been anticipating the fury that’s been building up, in everyone and everything, about everyone and everything, and we’ve ached for it to finally boil over and erupt.

Now might be a good time to rethink what a revolution can look like. Perhaps it doesn’t look like a march of angry, abled bodies in the streets. Perhaps it looks something more like the world standing still because all the bodies in it are exhausted—because care has to be prioritized before it’s too late.”

This interview has been prepared by Elsa Saade in collaboration with Huong Nguyen.

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