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Progressing Women-Led Development

Article by Marissa Conway and GAPS

October 24, 2023

Progressing Women-Led Development

In this interview, Marissa Conway (UNA-UK) and GAPS (Gender Action for Peace and Security – the UK’s Women, Peace and Security civil society network) discuss what women-led development should, and could look like, as well as how the UK can be ambitious to make progress in this area moving forward. Full series around the G20 can be read here.


Why has there been a shift from ‘women’s development’ to ‘women-led development’?


Marissa Conway: The recent multilateral push towards women-led development stems out of the 2023 G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, which cites a commitment to the social and economic empowerment of women.[1] India in its capacity as G20 President has championed this shift as one of its six priorities, the rationale being that the terminology of ‘women-led’ invokes a framing in which women are not passive participants or recipients of development and aid but rather active leaders in their own right.[2] Interestingly, India seems to recognise the importance of implementing this agenda domestically as well as encouraging wider take up amongst the G20. This consistency in application across the local and global is laudable and seems to mark a new chapter of the Indian Government’s engagement with gender equality initiatives; for example, it has never implemented a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security despite widespread international take up and only a few years ago downplayed the United Nations’ criticism of the high numbers of cases of sexualised violence against women. I am hopeful about the emphasis on domestic cohesion alongside the wider calls for multilateral engagement.[3]


GAPS: Women’s development follows a tradition of where women are treated as the passive recipients of foreign policy, and especially as aid predominately goes to the global majority, there is a strong racialised and colonial component to who gives and who receives. Within this paradigm, women still barely receive any funding, as 1% of global peacebuilding funding goes to women and a majority of that goes to north-based organisations.

Women-led development understands that women in all their diversity must be in the driver’s seat for successful development and sustainable peace.”


The shift to women-led development is important because it aims to redistribute power across intersecting axes of difference. Women are on the frontlines, they face the consequences of conflict the hardest, as they do with climate change and other transnational challenges, yet their expertise and experience is not included at the table. Core to their communities, they hold solutions to complex problems as local experts, and we know their participation in peace processes will lead to longer and more sustainable peace. Women-led development understands that women in all their diversity must be in the driver’s seat for successful development and sustainable peace.


How does this shift need to be a priority within international multilateral systems? And do you see progress towards greater dialogue on ‘women-led development’ in multilateral forums?


Marissa Conway: Language is a powerful tool for creating normative changes, something which the development sector indeed needs. At best, development is a method to redistribute resources between High Income Countries (HICs) and Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs). At worst, it’s a tool used by HICs to leverage economic influence to ensure global adherence to certain commercial and political interests. For example, under the Trump administration, the United States prohibited American aid spending to foreign organisations that discussed abortion as a family planning option.[4]

“For women-led development to be successful, it must also seek to challenge the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist principles that shape our societies today.”


Drawing a more explicit link to women’s leadership in development initiatives will no doubt help to establish a new and needed expectation about women’s agency and action. However, the gendered and racialised themes seen across the development sector cannot be addressed by women’s leadership alone, nor should women be expected to bear this burden alone. For women-led development to be successful, it must also seek to challenge the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist principles that shape our societies today. And these are challenges that require everyone, regardless of gender.


GAPS: The shift to using ‘women-led’ and ‘women’s rights organisation-led’ development needs to be a priority within all international systems including the multilateral space, as it is an influential and agenda-setting space that can help shift the approach to development of governments and international NGOs. It moves away from a top-down and patriarchal approach where global institutions can make the decisions as to how to ‘develop’ women, and towards an approach that allows for initiatives to truly reflect the self-identified needs of a broad range of women. There has been progress within some multilateral forums such as UN Women to recognise the need for meaningful participation of women in all development, humanitarian and peacebuilding fora, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres publicly stated the need for greater and more meaningful participation of women in mediation efforts, saying that this meant “supporting peacebuilding at the local level, even during conflict … We must consistently support the local women’s groups that negotiate humanitarian access and support community resilience; learn from them; and build peace from the ground up”.[5]


What examples have you seen of countries effectively investing in women-led development? What lessons can the UK learn from these approaches?


Marissa Conway: The principles of women-led development are not unfamiliar. As listed in the 2023 G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, women-led development includes reducing the gap in labour force participation, providing equal access to education, closing the gender pay gap, addressing the unequal distribution in paid and unpaid care, eliminating gender-based violence, promoting women’s inclusion in the financial sector, and eliminating gender stereotypes and biases.[6] All these goals can be found across other feminist and gender equality initiatives, such as feminist development or aid policies, the Women, Peace and Security agenda, or Feminist Foreign Policy frameworks. But outside of government-implemented agendas, these themes have long been championed by grassroots and civil society feminist movements.

“The goals found in women-led development must be connected to wider efforts to reduce sexism and racism within society.”


The above goals, while fundamentally important to achieve equality, are also the symptoms of a patriarchal society. Increasing women’s inclusion in any given sector, institution, or system, without efforts to change the unequal power hierarchies within those spaces, won’t result in any material change to women and girls’ rights. The goals found in women-led development must be connected to wider efforts to reduce sexism and racism within society.


GAPS: Some other countries have incorporated women-led approaches into their development work, such as in Canada, Jordan and Lebanon where civil society is part of the development and implementation of key policies including National Action Plans (NAPs) on Women, Peace and Security. There are further examples of governments, including the Netherlands, undertaking feminist grant making, which removes some of the arduous requirements that are not feasible for small and local women’s rights organisations to access their funding opportunities.[7] The UK should take on a more feminist approach to funding, with its current approach to grantmaking inaccessible to women-led organisations diminishing the UK’s ability to commit to truly women-led development. It has to be noted that the UK has made a start by granting 33 million to the Equality Fund.


In 2023 the UK Government renewed their Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda for the next 5-year period, and their International Women and Girls Strategy for 2023-2030. In what areas do you see the UK’s policy succeeding or what should they be doing differently with regard to women-led development?


Marissa Conway: The commitments outlined in these agendas echo the principles of women-led development as interpreted by the G20. Significant resources have been spent on the UK Government’s Preventing Sexualised Violence Initiative, for example, and the Women and Girls Strategy commits the UK Government to “defend the gains and drive progress for women and girls” in pursuit of a safer, fairer, and greener world.[8] These agendas are aspirational, robust, and position the UK as a champion of women and girls’ rights.


However, the Government often acts in opposition to these outlined commitments.[9] A stark example is its decision to cut foreign aid, the first round of which saw a reduction of £1.1 billion in 2020. At this point the United Nations Population Fund’s aid was reduced by 85%.[10] Had this not been cut, it is estimated that 250,000 child and maternal deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies, and 4.3 million unsafe abortions would have been prevented.


The commitments in its gender equality initiatives and the consequences of the UK’s actions elsewhere cannot be separated. If the UK is to truly champion women and girls’ rights, then these aims must be incorporated across all areas of domestic and foreign policy.


GAPS: The UK has been successful in a number of areas of women-led development including investing in knowledge development through the Women, Peace and Security Helpdesk which provides an expert call-down facility for flexible, responsive and easy-to-use technical advice and support on WPS and gender in conflict and crisis contexts, for the UK Government.[11] The UK has also supported the development of NAPs in Colombia and Jordan, supporting the participation of women-led organisations in the process.


There are also areas where the UK must change their approach, especially in order to be coherent with their stated aims and objectives on WPS and women-led development, for example the lack of policy coherence between the UK’s WPS NAP and migration policies, including the recently passed Illegal Migration Bill and announced Rwanda deportation plan which directly impacts the same women human rights defenders (and others) who the UK purports to support. Furthermore, the UK’s foreign policy and defence policy in relation to supporting Ukraine has been inconsistent with their approach and lack of support to women in Palestine, by supporting collective punishment and blockades by Israel.


Looking ahead, how could the UK be more ambitious in its approach to women-led development within its foreign policy agenda?


Marissa Conway: There are several important mechanisms the UK Government must have in place in order to see significant progress on the aims of women-led development, mirrored in its current gender equality initiatives. Firstly, such work cannot be siloed into stand-alone programmes, but must be incorporated across the entire Government as priorities in domestic and foreign policy. Secondly, the UK must put its money where its mouth is and provide sufficient resources to achieve these agendas. Such efforts also require close working relationships with feminist civil society, where the input of activists and academics are prioritised and compensated. Lastly, and crucially, the UK must take accountability and recognise its own role in creating the global instability that leads to violence against women and girls. Then and only then can we expect to see progress toward safeguarding women and girls’ rights.


GAPS: Essential for building peace and eliminating poverty is women-led development, however in July 2021, the UK Parliament voted to reduce spending on Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI until the economy meets a series of criteria that the sector has branded as unlikely to be met for several years. In 2022, further pressures were placed on the budget as spending for other purposes – including hosting refugees in the UK – were counted towards ODA spend. UK ODA cuts have already had a severe and disproportionate impact on women and girls. This was identified by the Government in an Equalities Impact Assessment published in July 2023, which recognised that the reduction of ODA has lead to a significant reduction of funding to programmes aimed at reaching those ‘furthest behind’, including women and girls and disabled people, and warned that the proposed reductions to specific gender interventions, including violence against women and girls and sexual and reproductive health and rights, would have a negative impact on wider efforts to advance gender equality and achieving peace.

“Ambition means not only restoring the aid budget… [the UK…] must also change how it funds: providing core, flexible, long-term funding directly to women’s rights organisations on the ground.”


Ambition means not only restoring the aid budget to a level where the UK is able to meaningfully confront the consequences of transnational challenges including rising conflict, climate change and a growing anti-gender movement, it must also change how it funds: providing core, flexible, long-term funding directly to women’s rights organisations on the ground.


Marissa Conway is the CEO of United Nations Association UK. She is a feminist activist and foreign policy expert with a focus on human rights, peace and security, and systemic change. She has received numerous accolades for her work and in 2019 was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. Originally from Silicon Valley in California, Marissa began her advocacy career in human trafficking prevention. From 2016-2022 she was Co-Founder and the UK Executive Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. She has a BA in Political Science and a BA in Music from Chapman University in California, as well as an MA in Gender Studies from SOAS University of London. Follow her on Instagram or TikTok at @marissakconway and learn more about her work at


Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) is the UK’s Women, Peace and Security civil society network. They are a membership organisation of 19 multi-mandate international NGOs, peacebuilding organisations, women’s rights organisations and human rights organisations. They were founded to progress the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. GAPS role is to promote, and hold the UK government to account on, its international commitments to women and girls in conflict areas worldwide. GAPS does this by working with GAPS members and global partners.


[1] G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, September 2023,

[2] G20 Ministerial Conference on Women’s Empowerment, Chair’s Statement, August 2023,

[3] Shivangi Seth, India’s inconsistent adherence to the Women, Peace and Security agenda, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute, June 2022,; Sparshita Saxena, ‘Unwarranted comments’: India rejects UN criticism of violence against women, Hindustan Times, October 2020,

[4] Trump Revives Ban on Foreign Aid to Groups That Give Abortion Counseling, The New York Times, January 2017, ​​

[5] United Nations Peacebuilding, Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, 2018,

[6] G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, September 2023,

[7] Kellea Miller and Rochelle Jones, Towards a Feminist Funding Ecosystem, Awid, October 2019,

[8] Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative,; Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, International Women and Girls Strategy 2023–2030, March 2023,

[9] Keya Khandaker, Opinion – The Hypocrisy of the UK Government’s Plans for Girl’s Education in the Global South, E-International Relations, July 2021,

[10] GAPS, Assessing UK Government Action on Women, Peace and Security in 2021, May 2022,

[11] Women, Peace and Security Helpdesk, see: ​​

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