230 women's NGOs from the Western Balkans sent a letter to UN agencies appeal them that during the realization of their activities include and respect the expertise and commitment of women's organizations, as well as to increase funds intended for support and protection of women's NGOs

Dear António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General:
Dear Achim Steiner, Administrator, UNDP:
Dear Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women:
Dear Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women:
Dear Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, Director, UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and CIS and Assistant Administrator of UNDP:
Dear Alia El-Yassir, UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia:

This year commemorates the 20th Anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), in which the UN has committed to involving women’s organisations in “peace and security governance”, including in addressing violence. Moreover, UNSCR 2493, calls upon UN agencies to include women’s rights organisations (hereafter, WCSOs) in their endeavours and calls for “increased funding in the areas of WPS, including increased support and protection to CSOs.” The WPS framework and cooperation with UN agencies is important for WCSOs in maintaining their integrity and independence.

Considering these commitments, on the eve of the 20th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325, and as the “16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence” near, we appreciate that one of the focal areas this year, as outlined in the Concept is: “honouring and acknowledgment of women’s movements and their leadership in 16 Days of Activism and in preventing and ending violence against women and girls in general.” Indeed, historically women’s movements and WCSOs have been at the forefront of efforts to raise public awareness and improve institutional response to gender-based violence, particularly violence against women. Amid the absence of state services and near total disregard for violence survivors, for decades WCSOs were the only actors providing safe spaces, psychological counselling, healthcare, legal aid, and other services to women and children who had suffered violence. In the Western Balkans (WB), WCSOs have provided such crucial services for up to three decades. Through this experience, WCSOs have amassed substantial knowledge and expertise in supporting women and children, using a holistic, victim-centred approach. Drawing from this knowledge, WCSOs have led efforts to establish legislation that would improve access to justice and services for persons suffering violence. Considering the widespread influence of patriarchal structures in our societies, WCSOs are the only consistent and relentless guarantors of support to persons who have suffered violence.

Despite the aforementioned UN commitments and the vast experience of WCSOs, regretfully UN agencies do not always recognise WCSOs’ expertise or adequately fund their work. We are writing this letter to express our concerns over issues long discussed among WCSOs in our region, but rarely put in writing. It is important to mention that due to unequal funding-related power relations between the UN and WCSOs, many WCSOs that have faced the issues outlined here have hesitated speaking openly about these challenges for fear of losing their funding from UN agencies. We hope that, given the focus of this 16 Days campaign, we will find open ears to hear our concerns and that this letter will open a dialogue between WCSOs and UN agencies on these important issues.

Several WCSOs in the WB report that they have not been consulted appropriately in the initial planning and design of UN agencies’ programs in the WB; sometimes this has contributed to unnecessary programs or overlap in programming. This is a lost opportunity and inefficient use of limited resources for women’s rights. Some WCSOs also report being ostracized from governmental decision-making processes coordinated by UN agencies. They have experienced UN agency representatives speaking negatively about certain WCSOs to government counterparts, thereby undermining WCSOs’ work and public image. In some instances, WCSOs have observed UN agencies working with WCSOs that have very little expertise in addressing violence, because these WCSOs can be “controlled”, rather than working with comparatively more experienced WCSOs. Meanwhile, we wish to emphasise that there are individuals in UN agencies who do advocate for, support, and collaborate with WCSOs. Regretfully, however, this does not seem to be an institutionalized approach, but rather the initiative of individuals.

Unfortunately, UN agencies also often, intentionally or unintentionally, compete with WCSOs for funds. The UN has substantially more resources than WCSOs, which makes it easier for UN agencies to commit resources for fundraising. Moreover, individual states’ and European Union (EU) commitments to the UN mean that UN agencies are not subject to the same processes of procurement; they can more easily negotiate direct financing from states and the EU. This can contribute to unfair competition for resources. For example, with the assistance of UN Women, at the end of 2016, the European Commission (EC) decided to change the way Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) funds for addressing violence against women in the WB would be distributed. Instead of distributing funds directly to WCSOs, like in previous IPA calls for proposals, and as for all other issues (e.g., human rights, trafficking, corruption), the EC gave UN Women €5 million for implementing the Istanbul Convention. UN Women agreed to disseminate 60%, €3 million, to WCSOs in the WB. However, UN Women calls for proposals were for €60,000 or less, with a maximum one-year implementation period, decreasing the amount of support available to WCSOs; and in some countries these funds did not support crucial service provision needs. As a result, WCSOs focused on addressing violence against women have been unable to have regional, multiannual projects under IPA, like they had previously.[1] Although WCSOs had built their capacities to implement IPA actions amounting to more than €1 million, after UN Women interfered, the changed funding approach wrongly implied that WCSOs in the WB are incapable of independently managing substantial funds and need the patronage of UN Women for work in their own countries. This undermined the image and resources available for WCSOs.

We have heard the argument that donors fund UN agencies because local WCSOs do not have the capacity to handle large funds. Evidence proves otherwise. Several WCSOs in the WB have managed substantial funds, including as per EU and UN requirements. As stated in UNSCR 1325, 1889, 2250, and 2493, local organizations should receive more support from international institutions. Indeed, the UN has recognised that this will contribute to sustainable activism and real changes.

Losses in financing have been exacerbated by a broader trend in foreign donors decreasing funding for service providers under the assumption that states would assume these responsibilities. However, given the present political and economic climate, including most recently the COVID-19 pandemic, no states in the WB have fully taken on these responsibilities. As a result, several WCSO service providers have been left without funds for crucial services, placing women and children at risk. A recent report reveals several challenges that WCSOs in the region face in accessing funding.

Meanwhile, UN agencies’ prevalent approach of contracting individual experts, rather than WCSOs’ expertise, draws financial and human resources away from WCSOs, often after WCSOs have invested in training them. The approach of contracting experts instead of WCSOs also undermines recognition of organisations’ expertise and role in contributing to changes.

In their reports at country and international levels, on several occasions we have observed that UN agencies have failed to publicly acknowledge the contributions of WCSOs to achievements made in addressing violence against women. In the worst cases, UN agencies have taken credit for work done by WCSOs. In other instances, reports by UN agencies only mention “CSOs” without appropriately recognising the names of WCSOs that have worked hard to bring about changes. Giving credit to WCSOs for their important work would contribute substantially to the recognition of WCSOs’ expertise, which can translate into political support and further legitimization of their work in the eyes of citizens and national governments. This would contribute to implementing the recommendations in the aforementioned UN resolutions, towards the sustainability of WCSOs via improved local support.

The time has come for all UN agency missions and staff to practice what they preach in terms of their support for and empowerment of local organizations. We call on all UN agencies and their staff to: (1) treat WCSOs as equal partners and experts, recognising and respecting their expertise; (2) adequately consult and listen to WCSOs during the initial design of all new programs in the WB; (3) engage WCSOs with expertise in all legal and other processes that involve dialogue with government counterparts, showcasing their expertise, building government-civil society relations, and thereby providing important political support and visibility to WCSOs; (4) ensure that UN reports give appropriate recognition and credit to WCSOs engaged in the changes reported, by name; (5) make a greater effort and strongly encourage UN agency staff to contract WCSOs, rather than individual experts, thereby recognising WCSOs’ expertise and providing much-needed resources; and, importantly, (6) design and implement a policy of “non-compete” for funds with WCSOs.

We thank you for your attention and hope that this letter will contribute to an open, honest, and constructive dialogue on these issues and improved cooperation with UN agencies, which we see as key partners in bringing about changes in our region.

Sincerely, the undersigned 230 WCSOs:

  • Agritra Vision Association – Dibra (Shoqata “Agritra Vizion” – Dibër) (Albania)
  • Albanian Women Empowerment Network (Rrejti i Fuqizimit të Gruas në Shqipëri) (10 organisations, Albania)
  • Association ASTRA – Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings – Belgrade (Astra akcija protiv trgovine ljudima – Beograd) (Serbia)
  • Association Fenomena Kraljevo (Udruženje Fenomena Kraljevo) (Serbia)
  • Association of Patients with Malignant Diseases of the City of Cazin (Udruženje oboljelih od malignih oboljenja Grada Cazina) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Association of Roma Women – Bujanovac (Udruženje Romkinja Bujanovac) (Serbia)
  • Association of Women Femina Smederevska Palanka (Udruženje žena Femina Smederevska Palanka) (Serbia)
  • Association of Women Sandglass Krusevac (Udruženje žena Peščanik Kruševac) (Serbia)
  • Autonomous Women’s Center (Automni ženski Centar Beograd) (Serbia)
  • Association “Woman BiH” - Mostar (Udruženje „Žena BiH“ - Mostar) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Association “Women from Una“ - Bihać (Udruženje „Žene sa Une“ - Bihać) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Association “Women’s Vision” - Tuzla (Udruženje „Ženska vizija“ - Tuzla) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Centre for Women’s Rights - Vrsac (Centar za zenska prava - Vršac) (Serbia)
  • Centre of Women’s Rights (Centar ženskih prava) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Citizens’ Association “Future” - Modriča (Udruženje građana Budućnost - Modriča) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Citizens’ Association “VIVE ZENE” - Tuzla (Udruženje građana „VIVE ŽENE“ - Tuzla) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Committee for Human Rights Vranje (Odbor za ljudska prava Vranje) (Serbia)
  • Counselling Line for Girls and Women – Tirana (Linja e Këshillimit për Gra dhe Vajza - Tiranë) (Albania)
  • Foundation “CURE” - Sarajevo (Fondacija „CURE“ - Sarajevo) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Foundation United Women (Udružene žene Banja Luka) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Gender Alliance for Development Centre (Qendra Aleanca Gjinore për Zhvillim) (Albania)
  • Gender Budgeting Watchdog Network (Western Balkans Region)
  • Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Banja Luka (Helsinški parlament građana - Banja Luka) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • IN Foundation Banja Luka (IN Fondacija Banja Luka) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Impulse Tutin (Impuls Tutin) (Serbia)
  • Independent Women’s Centre - Dimitrovgrad (Nezavisni ženski centar - Dimitrovgrad) (Serbia)
  • Jona Association – Saranda (Shoqata “Jona” - Sarandë) (Albania)
  • Kosovo Women’s Network (Rrejti i Graves të Kosovës / Mreža žena Kosova) (156 organisations, Kosovo)
  • National Network to End Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Национална мрежа против насилство врз жени и семејно насилство/ Rrjeti nacional kundër dhunës ndaj femrave dhe dhunës familjare) (23 organisations, North Macedonia)
  • Organization Gender Peace and Security - Durrës (Organizata Gender Paqe dhe Siguri - Durrës) (Albania)
  • Rights for All (PRAVA ZA SVE) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Roma Association of Novi Becej (Udruzenje Roma Novi Becej) (Serbia)
  • Safe Oasis Kragujevac (Oaza sigurnosti Kragujevac) (Serbia)
  • Sarajevo Open Centre - Sarajevo (Sarajevski otvoreni centar – Sarajevo) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Psycho – Social Center “Vatra” - Vlora (Qendra psiko – sociale “Vatra” - Vlorë) (Albania)
  • SOS Helpline for Women and Children Victims of Violence Vlasotince (SOS telefon za žene i decu žrtve nasilja Vlasotince) (Serbia)
  • SOS Women’s Centre Novi Sad (SOS Ženski centar Novi Sad) (Serbia)
  • The Women’s Forum of Prijepolje (Forum žena Prijepolje) (Serbia)
  • Victimology Society of Serbia Belgrade (Viktimološko društvo Srbije Beograd) (Serbia)
  • Woman to Woman - Shkodra (Gruaja tek Gruaja - Shkodër) (Albania)
  • Women’s Association Derventa - Derventa (Udruženje žena Derventa – Derventa) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Women’s Association “Priroda” - Bratunac (Udruženje žena „Priroda“ - Bratunac) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Women’s Association “SEKA” - Goražde (Udruženje žena „SEKA“ - Goražde) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Women’s Alternative Sombor (Ženska alternativa Sombor) (Serbia)
  • Women for Peace - Leskovac (Žene za mir – Leskovac) (Serbia)
  • Women’s Rights Centre (Centar za ženska prava) (Montenegro)
  • Women’s Centre - Uzice (Ženski centar - Užice) (Serbia)

[1] 1 From 2012-2016, the Autonomous Women’s Centre (AWC) coordinated a regional, multiannual IPA action: “Coordinated efforts - Toward new European standards in protection of women from gender-based violence”, in the amount of €1,300,000, conducted in 7 countries (all ex-Yugoslav republics, together with Austria - WAVE network, with support from the European Women’s Lobby), in partnership with 29 WCSOs. More information on the project is at: I SIGN.