Anne Firth Murray is the Founding President of the Global Fund for Women, which provides funds internationally to seed, strengthen, and link groups committed to the wellbeing of women. She has worked at the United Nations as a writer, taught in Hong Kong and Singapore, and spent several years as an editor with Oxford, Stanford, and Yale University presses. She currently teaches on international women’s health and human rights at Stanford University. During the past twenty-five years, she has also worked in the field of philanthropy, serving as a consultant to many foundations. From 1978 to 1987, she directed the environment and international population programs of the Hewlett Foundation in California.
Ms. Murray serves on several boards and councils of non-profit organizations, including the African Women’s Development Fund, Commonweal, the Global Force for Healing, the Global Justice Center, and SPARK (a women’s philanthropy). She is the recipient of many awards and honors for her work on women’s health and philanthropy, and in 2005 she was nominated as one of a group of 1,000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize.
What was your inspiration behind starting the Global Fund for Women? What challenges did you face in the beginning stages? What information or support did you wish you had had when you started this journey?
The process of creating the Global Fund for Women is described in my book, Paradigm Found: Leading and Managing for Positive Change. This book is partly autobiographical, partly historical (about the Global Fund), and partly a “how to do it” describing how to found and develop an international organization.
My inspiration arose from years of working in the philanthropic world, observing that many women’s groups working on difficult or controversial issues were not being supported by the major foundations (or by anyone, really). And yet, these women’s groups were doing interesting and very important things, and they needed support.
In my work at the Hewlett Foundation on population and environmental issues, it seemed obvious that we should be supporting the efforts of women, but I could not persuade people at that Foundation to develop a program that would provide funding for groups governed and managed primarily by women, groups that often were organized somewhat informally, and groups that were quite small and were seeking smaller amounts of money.
So with the urging of friends, I decided to create the organization myself. In other words, I had a dream of creating a fund that would raise money and give away money in flexible and generous ways to women around the world to do what they wanted to do to empower women rather than what donors wanted them to do. This dream developed over the 1980s when I was working for the Hewlett Foundation, and when I began to give it reality (after 1987), I became driven to make it happen. I was quite fanatical: I simply wanted to give my dream reality.
With regard to what information or support I wished that I had had: I cannot think of anything that really responds to this question. I knew the field. I knew that there was a need. And I thought that I knew what would help women worldwide follow their dreams. We needed to put these ideas into place, raise money, relate to the women’s groups, and just move forward.
What are the criteria or requirements you look for in organizations that seek funding from the Global Fund for Women?
The criteria we set up developed over the years. At base, we were going to fund:
- groups that were primarily managed and governed by women;
- groups that included in their processes and structures women directly affected by the issues that the group was working on (e.g., involving prostitutes directly in the governance and processes of an organization designed to be of assistance to prostitutes or including young women in a group that was trying to work with adolescents, and so on);
- groups that were unlikely to obtain funding from other sources because they were ahead of their time or working on controversial issues;
- groups that could benefit greatly by relatively small amounts of money;
- groups that were concerned with the basic human rights of women; and
- groups that might be working on promoting women’s access to modern communications technology and to the problem of poverty.
What do you see for the future of Global Fund for Women? What projects are you currently taking part in and what projects do you plan to partake in in the near future?
Although I am very often in touch with people at the Global Fund for Women, I don’t have any role at the moment in the Fund’s processes or structures, so I am not actively involved in any projects of the organization. I will participate in the 25th year celebration of the Global Fund for Women next week in New York, and I occasionally visit the office to speak with the staff and others about the history, the vision, and the values that characterized the Global Fund at the beginning of its life.
With regard to the question of the future of the Global Fund for Women: I really do not know. I recently had a conversation with the current President about exactly this question, and we talked about how it was still very important to support small emerging groups of women all over the world but that it is now very important also to work with and strengthen the many networks and coalitions of women’s groups that have developed over the past fifteen years around the world. We also talked about how it is very important that women’s groups at all levels communicate with each other and collaborate in an attempt to work together and to understand and analyze what may be the best strategies for strengthening women worldwide. The central issue of violence in all of its forms continues to need attention, as does the persistence of poverty. But we also need to move actively into the political and policy areas to ensure that women are actively participating in the futures of their countries. In other words, the problems persist and there is still a huge amount of work to be done.
What changes have you witnessed in the treatment and wellbeing of women worldwide since you began your work several decades ago? How must international efforts to improve women’s health, status, and empowerment be adjusted to reflect these changes?
I wrote a book about these issues, which was published in late 2007, with a publication date of 2008. During the past couple of years, with the help of former students, a revised 2nd edition of the book has been produced and will be available within the next few weeks (in May of 2013). Working on the revision illustrated that with regard to many issues there has not been significant change.
Violence against women proliferates; women are still the poorest of the poor. Although many more girls are being enrolled in schools around the world, the gaps between the education of boys and girls persist, and the question of the quality of education that children are receiving is central and worrying. Maternal mortality has declined worldwide, but levels are still very high (For example, about 350,000 women still die each year of almost completely preventable childbirth and pregnancy-related illjnesses and injuries.) The subordination of women continues in all countries (obviously with different intensity around the world). One cannot generalize about “international efforts to improve women’s health….” Some efforts work well. Others are a waste of money. All issues are important. Those of us who care about inequities between people need to keep on working in the areas of our choice and persistently attempt to make positive change, always in the context of compassion and loving kindness.
As an organization and as individuals, it can be difficult to find avenues for direct action and impact in the area of women’s rights. What are some ways students can affect real change?
Students can become aware of these issues, and organizations such as yours are helping this process. This is an important beginning: to learn about these issues, to become aware of them. Students can study and become competent. They can learn languages. They can clarify their beliefs and come to conclusions about what kinds of people they really want to be. Then: no matter what path a student chooses, she or he can carry out that career with great competence but also with clarity about what she or he believes.
She or he can live a life that is characterized by caring, compassion, and loving kindness. What a person does is important, but the way that the person lives life or pursues a career or profession is far more important. What we do is important, but the way we do it can be transformative. It is very important for young people to cultivate their basic drive toward compassion and loving kindness. Expressing these values at the same time as being a competent person can make significant changes in the world.
Are you optimistic about the state of women’s rights in this decade? What do you consider as being the greatest asset and the greatest liability of the women’s movement between 2013-2020?
At base, I am an optimist. Although I observe that terrible problems (such as violence against women) persist, we are much more aware now of the existence and prevalence of these problems. Sometimes at their peril, women are outspoken about their rights; some are risking their lives. But change is inevitable, and women are increasingly demanding their rights. At the same time, I believe that men are increasingly wanting to exercise their own humanity, their own loving kindness; our concepts of the “ideal” man could be changing. I feel that people are beginning to gain the tools to be kinder toward each other. The world is currently a very violent place. But there are many pockets of hope. Gandhi has said: ”In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists.” I believe that this statement is true, and it gives me hope for change over time.