• Olivia Adams

Women’s Grassroots Organizations Vs. International NGOs: Which is Best Suited to Empower Women?


Image used with permission from https://www.awam.org.my/about/our-story/

In recent years, there has been a growing body of research dedicated to the economic, social and political empowerment of women in developing countries, and an increasing number of global and international organizations dedicated to this mandate and designed to empower women (1). Despite the important work that international organizations achieve in regards to this, arguably the best way to achieve this mandate is through the work of local women-led grassroots organizations. However, the work of such organizations is often overlooked (2).

This article will focus on why women-led grassroots organizations (WGOs) are best-suited to promote women’s empowerment, while tying in the example of All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) in Malaysia. AWAM is an organization which advocates for and empowers survivors of violence. They pride themselves on having taken “women’s issues” from the personal and placed them within the public and political spheres, ultimately trying to break the silence on gender-based violence in Malaysia (3). They claim a role in changing public discourse around women’s rights through legal reforms within the country, such as the Domestic Violence Act, and the inclusion of “gender” in Article 8 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution (4). It is evident that AWAM has enacted change within Malaysia and has promoted the empowerment of Malaysian women. The question becomes, how did they do it and why are organizations such as AWAM best suited to do so?

To begin, grassroots organizations such as AWAM have fewer restrictions on how they use their funding. Much of the work of international NGOs (INGOs) is funded by corporate foundations (5). Because of this, their work is often constrained to a donor-recipient relationship which can limit the effectiveness of the work in question (6). More than simply out of the reach of corporate foundations, the term “grassroots” implies being outside the control of many larger institutions, such as the state, religious organizations, or any specific political party (7). This means that WGOs are free from the constraints of affiliations, responsible to no one except for the women they are attempting to help. For example, a chart breaking down AWAM’s funding in 2012 shows the following: 49% came from fundraising activities that the organization itself conducted; 38% came from the independent income of the organizers; and only 13% came from programme funds, meaning outside organizations funding AWAM (8). By creating a space that is neither private nor public, WGOs are a space where the priority is the women in the community, rather than any external organization or entity.

Additionally, these organizations are successful because they are women-led. This seems evident considering that they are “women’s grassroots organizations,” but it is an important part of why these organizations can be so effective. It is well-acknowledged that organizations led by women are best-suited to handle women’s issues and women’s empowerment (9). This is because the women heading these organizations have locally rooted knowledge of the social and cultural barriers to women’s empowerment - in other words, these women understand the realities of being a woman in their respective communities, which enables them to effectively create solutions to local issues (10). However, women-led organizations are rare in the INGO sector. According to a 2013 study, women only head 12-14% of the NGOs with the largest budgets in the U.S., and only 27% of those in the U.K. In Kenya and South Africa, women only hold 15-20% of director positions (11). While employment within NGOs is female-dominated, the executive positions, the leadership roles, are held by men (12). The glass ceiling is still predominant within INGOs, but women’s grassroots organizations directly bypass this glass ceiling by forming organizations founded by women, led by women, to help women. This ultimately makes them the most effective in achieving their mandate. AWAM is the perfect example of this - its founding members were all local Malaysian women, and a woman, Ho Yock Lin, holds the position of President of AWAM today.

Therefore, while often overlooked, women-led grassroots organizations are the best way to promote the empowerment of women in developing countries. This is because they are organized in such a way that helps them achieve their mandates in the best way possible. They have no affiliations with outside institutions, meaning their funding is not tied, allowing them to focus on achieving their goals in the best way they can see. Further, these organizations are most often led by local women, who have the most accurate understanding of women’s issues in the community being discussed. This means they have a direct understanding of the problem and consequently the best way to solve it. While only one organization was examined, these characteristics are applicable to WGOs across developing countries worldwide. It is time women’s grassroots organizations gained the recognition and respect that they deserve for the work that they do.

(1) Wesely, Marissa, and Dublon, Dina, 2015. “Empowering Women at the Grassroots” Stanford Social Innovation Review

(2) Kaplan, Temma, 1997. “Crazy for Democracy: Women in Grassroots Movements” Routledge Press, New York

(3) AWAM, All Women’s Action Society, https://www.awam.org.my 2017

(4) Ibid

(5) Wesely, Marissa, and Dublon, Dina, 2015. “Empowering Women at the Grassroots” Stanford Social Innovation Review

(6) Ibid

(7) Kaplan, Temma, 1997. “Crazy for Democracy: Women in Grassroots Movements” Routledge Press, New York

(8) AWAM, All Women’s Action Society, https://www.awam.org.my 2012

(9) Musimbi Kanyoro and Theo Sowa, 2017. “Include Women-Led Organizations in Canada’s Reproductive Health Projects” The Globe and Mail

(10) OECD, 2008. “Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness: Issues Brief 3” Innovative Funding for Women’s Organizations, DAC Network on Gender Equality.

(11) Gardner Institute, 2013. Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah.

(12) Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies. “Participation in NGOs: The Gender Gap in Participation,”

Works Cited:

AWAM, All Women’s Action Society, https://www.awam.org.my

Gardner Institute, 2013. Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah.

Kaplan, Temma, 1997. “Crazy for Democracy: Women in Grassroots Movements” Routledge Press, New York

Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies. “Participation in NGOs: The Gender Gap in Participation,” http://www.medinstgenderstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/research-report-civicus-revised.pdf

Musimbi Kanyoro and Theo Sowa, 2017. “Include Women-Led Organizations in Canada’s Reproductive Health Projects” The Globe and Mail,

https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/include-women-led-organizations-in-canadas-reproductive-health-projects/article35748709/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

OECD, 2008. “Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness: Issues Brief 3” Innovative Funding for Women’s Organizations, DAC Network on Gender Equality.

Wesely, Marissa, and Dublon, Dina, 2015. “Empowering Women at the Grassroots” Stanford Social Innovation Review


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