WomenStrong Ends this Tough Year Buoyed by Results, Promise, and Opportunity

WomenStrong was founded in the belief that women-led organizations across the globe can learn from each other’s wisdom and experience to improve their own programming for women and girls. So last year we launched our Learning Lab, to facilitate this peer learning exchange and the sharing of best practices among our 19 partner organizations worldwide.

We had no idea we’d be testing our research hypothesis in a trial by fire.

Progress initially got well underway last fall with our first six Learning Lab partners, all non-government organizations (NGOs) working in the area of girls’ education and empowerment; they were able to meet in person, explore the synergies identified in their work, and brainstorm joint undertakings to chronicle or disseminate their findings.

GENET Malawi leaders describes their approach to WomenStrong partners at our Girls’ Education and Empowerment retreat, November 2019.

On March 1, 2020, we announced two new Learning Lab cohorts, consisting of 13 dynamic, women-driven NGOs from Madagascar to Mali to western Mexico to western Michigan, all focusing on either women’s health or preventing violence against women and girls. 

We shared relevant resources and opportunities with all our partners, and we planned an entire season of sharing best practices, culminating in an in-person retreat where we would bring our new partner organizations together to delve deeper into learning from and collaborating with each other.

Then the COVID pandemic exploded across the globe.

Realizing quickly that our Learning Lab partners would face both unprecedented and unforeseeable challenges, WomenStrong reached out to them all, to hear how they were doing, and to reassure them that they could use our grant monies to address their staff members’ and program participants’ immediate needs, without worrying about asking, informing, or reporting back to us.

Our partners, of course, were way ahead of us, in their thinking, planning, adaptability, and their keen awareness of the new risks to their vulnerable, underserved communities. Many had already set up alternative systems for connecting with their participating girls and women and arming them with vital public health information, personal protective equipment, sanitary products, food packages, and other essential items. We invited our Guatemalan and Ugandan partners to share their COVID-related adaptations in a Learning Lab webinar, where others acquired valuable tips and strategies that they then applied in their own settings.

WomenStrong partner Roots of Health (Philippines) takes its sexual and productive health work on the road, as the COVID-19 pandemic hits (also pictured in the banner at top of page).

Other partners continued boldly with their work, which became ever more urgent as health clinics and schools closed, women lost access to reproductive care, and violence against girls and women increased in their communities. Our Rwandan, Kenyan, and Ugandan partners shared how they had enlisted local authorities in their violence prevention efforts, and we hosted two American partners in a public webinar to share their frameworks for understanding the root causes of gender-based violence and for engaging men and boys in stopping it.  

In every instance, partners’ choices and revised plans of action only confirmed for us that the best wisdom, programs, and outcomes do indeed lie with local, women-led organizations who know their communities best, reinforcing our sense at WomenStrong that trust-based philanthropy works and is long overdue.

Since then, we have doubled down on this approach. After reviewing their outstanding, life-saving work this year despite the hardships they all faced, we are renewing all their grants for another two years, so that they might continue their current work, resume their original programming, or change direction, depending on what they view as their communities’ most pressing needs in their areas of work.

Our decision, again, was based on our trust in our partners’ judgment and expertise, as well as our confidence that, as a Learning Lab, we will all benefit greatly from what we discover along the way. Our partners’ enthusiasm regarding their own continuation in the Learning Lab and with that, the chance to learn from and share with their peers has inspired us to plan new activities, make available additional resources and opportunities that will strengthen their programs and the outcomes for their women and girls, and amplify their voices, so that others might learn from their experience and apply that knowledge in their own settings.

Despite this agonizing year, we feel immensely hopeful. Having witnessed the mutually nourishing exchanges amongst our Learning Lab partners, as our initial hypothesis predicted, we look forward now to seeing accelerated positive outcomes among the girls and women in the communities where they work.

We’re so grateful to our partners and our team for how far we’ve come, and we’re excited about where we plan to go. After all, widening the community of practice so that countless more community-based organizations can implement what works to advance the rights and wellbeing of women and girls is why WomenStrong International was created and what we’re all about. 

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