The Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM) is an advocacy collective of thought leaders, activists, practitioners and academics working globally to end violence against women and girls (VAWG—also referred to as gender-based violence, or ‘GBV’). COFEM’s key strength lies in the collective expertise and experience of our members, who have made significant contributions to advancing women’s rights and ending VAWG in humanitarian and development settings across the world.
Listen to members speak out on why they feel we need COFEM!
Particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were many positive developments in national and international normative and legal frameworks regarding VAWG, as well as increased investment and growth in VAWG technical expertise, guidance and standards within humanitarian and development fields. The fact of gender discrimination as a driver of GBV and the value of gender mainstreaming work focusing on gender equality were at the forefront of programming.
In the last decade, however, many feminist practitioners, academics, and activists who make up COFEM’s membership (and beyond) have become increasingly alarmed by the shrinking space for work on VAWG and by the active undermining of work to center women and girls in GBV discourse and practice (in humanitarian and development settings).
Through its network, COFEM aims to build a community and foster collective action in which feminist-informed theory and practice on oppression, discrimination and violence are the core of efforts to address GBV. COFEM strongly believes such efforts must prioritize women-centered and women-led initiatives and be grounded in intersectional feminist analysis and approaches to transformation.
COFEM is committed to ensuring:
Women and girl-led movements and activism are at the forefront of efforts to end violence against women and girls, and this is reflected in GBV initiatives, programmes and research.
Feminist-informed experts working to address violence against women and girls are engaged in decision-making processes around GBV funding, programme design and implementation progress.
Men and boys are engaged in work to end their perpetration of violence against women and girls and to support structural changes in support of gender equality in ways that are accountable to women and girls.
The language of ‘gender’ as well as ‘gender-based violence’ focuses on the political project of ending structural gender inequalities that perpetuate violence against women and girls.
Practitioners, researchers, donors and policy-makers recognise the distinct drivers and impacts of violence against women and girls, and insist on specialized programming, services and responses to address this violence and support gender equality.
Partnerships and networks are formed with communities working on violence driven by other factors in order to cultivate a spirit of collective action rather than ‘victimhood competition.’
The last three decades have seen progress in addressing violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world. Feminist analysis and activism, along with strong local, national and international women’s movements have elevated VAWG–including in armed conflict and natural
disasters – into the public domain. In humanitarian and development work, a focus on VAWG without a socio-political analysis of gender inequality or a fully articulated theory of violence has led to interventions that do not address the lived experiences of women and girls, and do not recognize the constraints which prevent them from being able to realize their rights. This contributes to a failure to link acts of sexual or physical violence to the broader context of intersecting oppressions of race, class, patriarchy and post-colonial power. Global north agendas and interventions that heavily focus on research, cost, and market growth can undermine or even close space for initiatives that are women and girls’-centred, women and girls’-led, and rights-driven. As donors seek a “silver bullet” to ending VAWG, there has been a proliferation of male focused programming, exemplified by these agendas and interventions. This often results in the leadership and voices of women and girls being muted or, yet again, silenced altogether.
Against this backdrop of concerns, a small group of academics, activists and practitioners from around the world held a two-day convening in New York in 2016 to further articulate and assess the problem at hand and agree on concrete next steps to place women and girls at the centre of efforts to end violence against them. The purpose of the convening was to generate preliminary strategies, based on an intersectional feminist analysis, to ensure women and girls are consistently centred in humanitarian and development efforts to prevent and respond to the violence they face. An additional focus was to consider ways to scale up real time response actions when systems and/or individuals overlook how patriarchy, power, and privilege prevent diverse women and girls from realizing their rights and/or put them at risk for violence.
Participants at the convening agreed that the shrinking space and undermining of work with women and girls are manifesting in multiple ways but are all linked by the depoliticizing of VAWG. This manifests in multiple and interconnected challenges, including:
- The rise of gender neutrality within humanitarian discourse and practice;
- The emergence of competition around victimhood;
- A shift from women and girl led movements and activism to a technocratic approach to ending violence;
- Different interpretations of what “gender-based violence” (GBV) entails;
- A lack of clarity about how VAWG intersects with other forms of interpersonal and collective violence; and
- A lack of analysis of how to include men and boys in work to eradicate VAWG in a way that is accountable to women and girls.
There was a strong sense that this meeting was both a continuation of efforts, but also a beginning. It was a continuation of the struggle for equality that women all over the world have been engaged in for generations –which has set the path we now walk. This convening was also a beginning point for amplifying conversations women are having around the world to highlight their concerns about stalled progress in achieving equality. A beginning of forging new alliances to counter the challenges we are facing in keeping women and girls centred in humanitarian and development spheres. A beginning of saying, “No more business as usual, when that business is failing women and girls.” Although COFEM didn’t officially form until funding was obtained over a year later, this convening was the catalyst for COFEM’s creation, and the issues discussed at the meeting continue to be at the heart of COFEM’s advocacy efforts.
To date, COFEM has operated as a global network. Team members connect virtually and work across time zones and continents, and make up a wide range of age and experience. This global team is cross-generational and made up of diverse experiences and expertise, and has a practice of working inclusively and collaboratively. The COFEM Secretariat does the day-to-day work of running the network and is made up of a Coordinator and several other consultants, who focus on advocacy, communications, inclusion, internal communications, regional activities, research, and more. The Secretariat team also chairs the various Working Groups that all members are able to join on a monthly basis.
A Coordinating Committee of six women serves a two-year term as an advisory group to the Secretariat, and this group supports decision-making processes and provides strategic oversight.
The entire COFEM Secretariat and Coordinating Committee commit to the practice of feminist leadership as well as shared Guiding Feminist Principles in all workspaces and relationships and are currently located across seven different countries.
While the majority of COFEM members are practitioners, researchers, academics, and activists currently working on preventing or responding to gender-based violence (GBV) in the humanitarian and/or development field, COFEM membership is open to all women, in all of their diversity and with intersecting identities. Members support COFEM’s main advocacy objectives and agree to abide by COFEM’s Guiding Feminist Principles, available here.
Anyone interested in COFEM membership can submit their interest on our website. Potential members are then sent a membership request form, which is reviewed by the COFEM Secretariat for approval.
Being a COFEM member means becoming an advisor, leader, and partner all at once. Aside from having a key role in determining the network’s yearly action plan (which is completely shaped by member priorities), members have many opportunities to get involved, lead, and connect with one another, such as joining Working Groups or the monthly teleconference, writing blogs, participating in online discussions, facilitating their own events with COFEM Secretariat support, or lending their voice to collective advocacy campaigns.
Joining COFEM also means becoming a partner to a shared mission, gaining tools to conduct their own advocacy in their respective institutions. Perhaps most importantly, COFEM aims for all virtual spaces to be inclusive spaces of solidarity where members can meaningfully connect, build trust, and foster relationships with other members with both similar and different backgrounds, interests, expertise, and goals. COFEM provides a place where everyone has the opportunity to ask questions and learn from members in other regions, some with decades of experience and others with fresh perspectives, and to build knowledge in community. COFEM members then bring these conversations, momentum, and feminist ethos with them wherever they go beyond the network.
COFEM membership is absolutely free, and members give their time and technical insights when they spend time engaging and participating in meaningful ways, using their membership as an opportunity to learn, teach, grow, and share.
COFEM is committed to upholding our Guiding Feminist Principles and conducting collective advocacy around our shared objectives. The COFEM team values the practical daily work of building a feminist infrastructure and ecosystem that allows members to convene in a transformative space of solidarity to tackle the demands of our work to end violence against women and girls. We have an application process in place to ensure that potential members are aware of and agree with these guidelines and our strategic objectives.
While COFEM fundamentally believes in a whole of society approach that invites all community members to reflect upon and engage in actions to reduce VAWG, we are also conscious of a growing discontent in the way the “male engagement” movement has served to reproduce some of the very power dynamics it claims to dismantle. This space serves as an intentionally safe and brave space for women in all of their diversity to connect, collaborate, and provide thought leadership around this complicated issue.
As of July 2021, COFEM has nearly 300 members.
While we don’t have an exact breakdown of where every COFEM member is from or currently living, around half of our members responded to a recent mapping exercise, and as of mid-2020 all new members share this information with the Secretariat. Out of these members at the moment, the numbers are:
Asia Pacific: 10%
East and South Africa: 22%
Middle East and North Africa: 7%
North and South America: 32%
West Africa: 8%
Our team of Regional Liaisons convene regular meetings with members in their region to not only connect with one another, but to directly link COFEM’s activities to global conversations, identify emerging issues, and build our global movement.
If you aren’t a member, you can still reach out to us to become a “Friend of COFEM” and receive regular updates and special announcements to your inbox on activities, virtual events, and more. If you would like to partner with us or have a COFEM member speak at your event, please email us at email@example.com. We love to collaborate with values-aligned partners and peers and share resources with those looking to learn. You can follow us on Twitter for the latest news on launches, events, job openings, and more.
A fundamental and shared feminist perspective within women’s rights movements is that violence perpetrated against women and girls (VAWG) is grounded in systemic gender hierarchies and gender inequality—that is, it is gender-based.
A feminist perspective emphasizes individual and collective empowerment of women and girls and aims to transform structural dimensions of women and girls’ inequality. A feminist perspective is essential for understanding and dismantling systems of power that produce, reinforce, and perpetuate gender-based violence. For more information on why COFEM believes feminist-informed approaches are crucial to addressing violence perpetrated against women and girls, please read Tip Sheet 1: Why does a feminist perspective matter in work to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls? and How a lack of accountability undermines work to address violence against women and girls.
You can find a list of COFEM’s advocacy objectives here (please see: COFEM is committed to ensuring…), and a full breakdown on why they are important in both our Feminist Perspectives on Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls five-part paper series and the ten tip sheets within the Feminist Pocketbook.