Networking for Change: the role of the National Women’s Alliances in the women’s movement

Today we present the final blog post from Putting Women at the Centre: A Policy Forum. Hannah Gissane (@hannahgissane) from the Equality Rights Alliance (@ERAAustralia) discusses the role of feminist networks in advocacy. She covers a brief history – or herstory – of women’s networks in Australia, including the ERA. She then discusses networks as influencers, capacity builders, and movements, concluding that networks help women reach out to each other for support, exchange of knowledge, growth, and to generate the energy needed to do the difficult but essential work of advancing equality.

The Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) is a network of 61 organisations with an interest in advancing women’s equality. Together we advocate nationally for women’s equality, women’s leadership and recognition of women’s diversity. ERA is one of six National Women’s Alliances funded through the Federal Office for Women.

A herstory of the Alliances

The Alliances have existed in various iterations since 1999 when - under the Howard Government - the secretariat model of consulting with the women’s sector was introduced. The secretariat model initially consisted of three women’s secretariats representing young women, older women and business women, with lobbying eventually producing a fourth rural women’s secretariat.

While it was driven by the government, the women’s sector wasn’t passive in this reform and rallied together in the form of WomenSpeak, a network representing young women, with a policy emphasis on young women. Key to taking ownership of this secretariat model was resisting the role of a peak and creating mechanisms that supported the network’s diversity.

In 2010, then-Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek expanded the model to six alliances – the Australian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Alliance, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance, Economic Security for Women, Equality Rights Alliance, the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and the National Rural Women’s Coalition and Network. This expansion was intended to broaden women’s networks and increase the Federal Government’s engagement with women whose voices had not previously been heard in policy development and decision making.

Women’s voices and views in government

Women’s political power is constrained by a number of factors, from low representation in parliament and government to a decaying gender policy machinery and the impacts of neoliberalism on the policy process.

“Why should it just be the miners and farmers who have powerful lobbies in Canberra?”

In putting this question to delegates at the 2014 YWCA She Leads conference in Canberra, Anne Summers highlighted vast resource gaps between some of Australia’s most powerful industry lobbies and the women’s sector.

While each of these forces work to dilute women’s political power, it is vitally important to recognise the current, unprecedented political and community focus on gendered violence as an opportunity for women’s voices to be heard.

In a recent article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, Susan Harris Rimmer and Marian Sawer noted that ‘if it is construed as not requiring economic contribution, a focus on reducing male violence can fit more easily with the neoliberal agenda than other feminist claims’. In the last 18 months we have seen the women’s movement successfully expand the limited scope of this focus, linking gender based violence to gender equality in both policy and mainstream discourses.

Networks, in all their various forms, play critical roles in mobilising for action in these moments; leveraging point-in-time focus on our issues, to advocate for the structural reforms we need. At other times, networks generate hope and energy in periods of policy and political regress and offer a bulwark against the threats of fragmentation and discontinuity. Fundamentally, networks are essential to movements working to ripen the conditions for long-term structural change.

The Equality Rights Alliance - women’s networking in action

ERA is made up of 61 diverse organisations, working to build consensus on priorities for advocacy. These organisations include Women’s Property Initiatives, Womensport and Recreation, Children by Choice, Sisters Inside, Women with Disabilities Australia, The Australasian Council of Women and Policing, The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia, Girl Guides Australia, and the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children.

Navigating the distinctions in the work and views of members within a network and the work and views of a network is ongoing, as is finding issues that resonate for all members. Mechanisms within ERA support interaction, consensus building and direct engagement and buy-in. Such mechanisms include:

  • a Steering Group of 6 member representatives overseeing the ERA Secretariat;
  • an annual member’s face-to-face meeting; and
  • member work groups for all  ERA priorities, such as housing and gender policy machineries and shared interests/areas of work, such as sexual and reproductive health.

Levels of engagement vary across the network’s membership and across time, and these mechanisms seek to address the perennial challenges of the inevitable ebb and flow of member engagement and the different approaches and views of the membership.

Networks as influencers

Networks are the power in numbers that is required to create pressure points that influence and effect change. Networks provide infrastructure to assemble, marshal and amplify evidence and mobilise resources (see ‘The Power of Networks’ in Court et al., Policy Engagement: How civil society can be more effective). The diversity of views within networks facilitates innovative solutions and approaches, while representation is a key source of legitimacy and credibility. Submitting public policy submissions with sign-on from up to 61 organisations lends weight to ERA’s advocacy, while member participation and sign-on to submissions also provides opportunities for advocacy where individual organisations would otherwise be constrained by resources.

Women’s national networks also provide a conduit from the grassroots to the national stage, channelling the views and experiences of women into formal policy development and decision-making processes. One quite literal way ERA provides this pathway is through our annual Parliamentary Advocacy Day, where ERA members convene in Canberra for a day of meetings with parliamentarians. This direct advocacy is an opportunity to put faces to submissions and positions for politicians and to showcase the breadth and depth of the women’s movement, and an opportunity for members to create and build on parliamentary relationships. 

Notwithstanding such opportunities, the National Women’s Alliance model is a creature of government and there are limitations to influencing policy that are borne of this. Firstly, the role of the Alliances has been understood and interpreted differently by successive governments. This is particularly the case with the question of open criticism of government policy. Secondly, government funding comes with conditions. There is a preference in government contracts for tangible outputs that sometimes have only a peripheral relationship with systemic policy changes. Resolving the tensions between these requirements and substantive policy advocacy is a key challenge. Finally, there is a sense within the women’s sector and movement that consultation and participation does not always equate to genuine input, impact or outcome. Imperfect models for consultation underline a broader problem of the sidelining of the citizen voice.

Networks as Capacity Building

In May 2015, two thirds of ERA’s membership were present for the annual member’s meeting. At that meeting, we asked ERA members to write down what they valued about the network. The following are some of the key themes. 

Networks, like ERA, create spaces for exchange, sharing, connection and collaboration within the women’s movement and sector. This information and capacity building occurs from member to member and through direct training funded through the ERA Secretariat.

One member in particular highlighted the importance of working together in the context of competitive tendering: “considering how competitive tendering and reduction of focused government funding for gender issues, alliances like ERA help women’s organisations to better collaborate, work together and find crossover to push for change.” Further, sharing of resources and knowledge helps us avoid reinventing the wheel and can support the development of fruitful, long-term relationships across member organisations.

ERA members constantly cite the importance of face to face meetings, over teleconferences, e-lists and social media, in invigorating energy and connection for this collaboration. 

ERA’s international project has focused on creating spaces through face to face forums and webinars to share the women’s sector’s deep, but concentrated, wealth of knowledge about international human rights processes and instruments. Over the years, our international project has supported domestic organisations with little previous international experience to actively contribute to and participate in processes such as the Universal Periodic Review and the Commission on the Status of Women. Networking as a site for this work is particularly useful and fitting, given that these international processes rely on the investment of constituents in nation states to hold their governments accountable to their international commitments.

Diversity is treasured by ERA members. Members have highlighted “the opportunity to collaborate on common themes, through a broad range of eyes” and importance of “organisations representing different groups or issues” as critically important. Robin Katcher has highlighted the role of diverse networks in deepening member organisational understanding about issues that affect other organisations and groups, opening up opportunities for the development of intersectional approaches and frameworks.

On this note, networks representing a broad cross-section do not abate the need for organisations representing women facing multiple and intersecting marginalisations to be funded separately and adequately for national advocacy. The lack of current funding for the immigrant and refugee women’s alliance and the absence of funding for an alliance representing women with disabilities are enormous gaps in women’s advocacy in Australia. 

Networks in Movements

Aside from government-facing work, it is vital that networks like ERA continue to build the women’s movement: “Networks are not social movements; but social-justice movements need networks.” ERA is embedded within the feminist and women’s movements in Australia, composed of organisations, clubs and groups with interests in advancing women’s equality and situated in proximity to government.

As Sawer and Andrew have highlighted, policy activism in itself is not sufficient to combat feminist fading. The change we need hinges on a visible, energetic and sustainable women’s movement. At ERA, we have seen the effects of non-renewal in some women’s and feminist organisations. This does not spell the end of feminism. Instead, feminism is evolving and young women are engaging, as we know, in new and different ways. This evolution makes the development of robust intergenerational networks essential, to ensure the experience and skills in fading or transitioning organisations are passed on to new and developing entities. We need to move forward, but we must not lose our past.

This is one of the drivers behind our Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG), a group of 10 young women from across Australia. YWAG conducts their own work on issues of importance to young women, but also works in our member work groups as a mechanism for cultivating new leaders and improving the sustainability of the movement by building intergenerational links within ERA.

There is significant power in networking. Investing in relationships and connections has long been central to feminist praxis. Our networks continue to foster this, while also improving our own understanding of complex issues such as intersectionality and generational transition. Networks let us reach out to each other for support, for exchange of knowledge, for growth and to generate the energy we need to do this difficult but essential work.

Posted by @MsSophieRae