NWL President Margunn Bjørnholt: Why do we need women’s organizations?

Speech by Margunn Bjørnholt
President, Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights
President, Norwegian Women’s Lobby

New York, March 2015
CSW NGO forum, panel organised by the Norwegian Women’s Lobby

The Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights was founded in 1884 and it is the oldest women’s rights organization in Norway. The organization and its side shoots were pivotal in the struggle for women’s suffrage, which was achieved early, in 1913, with Norway as number four in the world after New Zealand, Australia and Finland. Through its 131 years of existence the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights has fought for women’s rights in good as well as bad times for feminist ideas. And survived, even through what our former president Torild Skard, has called the Ice Age for gender equality and women’s issues, the 1950s and 1960s .

Why do we need women’s organizations? Many seem to believe that gender equality is achieved in Norway. But the scores are clear: After all measurable standards women still lose when we look at money, power, control of resources, honor and fame, time and space, free speech ( that is freedom to express themselves without being subjected to harassment, kill and rape threats), to mention some.

I will draw attention to the role of women’s rights organizations in the construction of legal frameworks, machineries and structures of gender equality and the wider structures of the welfare state. This is important and well worth remembering here, having just witnesssed how feminist groups and women’s human rights organizations were left out ot the declaration for this CSW. The development towards greater equality between men and women in Norway is the outcome of a long struggle with women’s rights organizations at the forefront.

The Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights along with other women’s rights organizations have practically invented gender equality in Norway, starting with women’s suffrage, and they have been central in the design of public gender equality policy and gender equality machineries since the 1800s. The Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights was behind the creation of the Gender Equality Ombud, a ministry of gender equality (starting as a department in another ministry). Eva Kolstad, the former president of the Norwegian Assosiation for Women’s Rights became the first Gender Equality Ombud.

Many believe the women’s movement still plays an important role for the formulation and implementations of equality policy in Norway today, but the fact is that it happens to a small extent. On the contrary, women’s organizations today are small and weak and lack the necessary resources and clout to have a real impact on policies, with the possible exception for violence against women. This was the conclusion of a recent governmental commission on gender equality (the Skjeie reports). It is also the conclusion of a recent study of the women’s movement. For those interested it is the topic of a special issue of the Scandinavian journal NORA published last year.

Women’s organizations’ lack of resources and lack of involvement in policy development is a serious flaw of teh Norwegian democracy and it restricts women’s right to full participation and influence.

If you believe a vibrant civil society is essential in a democracy, and that women have the right to both participate and have a real influence on policy making, women’s organizations need to have resources. A diversity of women’s organizations must be able to become real partners in an informed dialogue with the authorities.

The Skjeie Commission recommended more than doubling of the funding to organizations in the gender equality field. Such an increase is absolutely necessary for Norway to argue vis-a-vis the CEDAW Committee that we have taken the necessary steps to fulfill our obligations under the Convention.

However what we have seen is the opposite, a reduction of the allocations for gender equality. The Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights and the other women’s rights organizations among our member organizations have had their funding reduced from the very small level of support they receive. Most of them have no paid staff and rely entirely on voluntary work, including administrative tasks which are steadily absorbing more resources due to increasing demands of documentation and reporting.

It is increasingly difficult to run the organization on a purely voluntary basis. This is of course to some extent a result of our previous successes. The Norwegian Assosiation for Women’s rights fought and won the right for married women to have employed work, fought against discriminatory tax rules that acted as disincentives for women’s paid work, and for welfare goods such as parental leave and daycare, which women rely on in order to combine paid work and children, and for women in politics, all of which have become the trademark of the Norwegian egalitarian and woman friendly society in international comparisons. As a result, women today are very busy holding paid jobs, being fertile and participating in politics, and there is less time for voluntary work.

Beijing +20 should be the start of a new impetus in our efforts to implement adopted commitments when it comes to women’s full human rights. In this work, women’s organizations need to play important role. What we experience in Norway is similar to the situation of women’s rights organizations worldwide. AWID has presented studies that show that a lack of funding and inadequate resources is the rule, more than the exception for women’s rights organizations. As a response, many women’s organizations increasingly seek corporate support and partnerships. This might be a good strategy for some organizations but it is not without its dangers.

I think the state has an important role to play in funding women’s rights organizations as part of the necessary democratic infrastructure that is needed for equal participation.