Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

Funding Anti-Gender Politics in Europe

Joni Lovenduski

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Annie Spratt

| 9 mins read

When the US Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the American constitutional right to abortion, enjoyed for more than fifty years, was overturned. The decision was quickly implemented at state level by red states that were also restricting voting rights. Such activity was not limited to the USA. In 2022 the UK government quietly removed reference to sexual and reproductive rights and ‘bodily autonomy’ from the multi-national ‘Statement on freedom of religion or belief and gender equality’, while in Poland and Hungary gender-based rights were removed. These attacks on gender-based rights have gone together with reductions in human rights and of democratic guarantees.

Neil Datta’s report Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Europe 2009-2018 charts the funding, activities and outputs of an increasing number of activities committed to undermining sex and gender equality policies. He argues that activity rooted in anti-gender positions may also attract supporters to alt and far-right movements. He therefore contends that anti-gender politics and illiberal politics are linked.

Datta’s arguments turn on funding information. Funding is a key resource of anti-gender rights activists. He maps the $707.2 million they received between 2009 and 2018, a period during which spending increased fourfold. Most of the money came from various national and transnational organisations of the religious and political right in Europe; some from Russian organisations associated with oligarchs Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev linked to far-right European parties, and some from US religious and alt-right groups. Funding is generated and circulates in various ways. US anti-gender actors operate on two levels. Their ultra-conservative think tanks act visibly in Europe, fundraising and mobilising the grassroots and exporting their knowledge production, whilst their financial backers operate via the billionaires and private foundations that bankroll the US Christian right.

Datta’s report is incomplete; it relies on publicly available information which is rarely itself complete. It is likely that significant amounts of funding activity around the 117 groups he has identified is hidden. For example, unknown amounts of spending are provided by four Russian state level government agencies whose accounts are not publicly available.

The 117 anti-gender rights groups that Datta identifies in Europe are, he reasons, only the tip of the iceberg. In evidence the report traces connections between public and religious based funding. Official representatives of Catholic, protestant and Orthodox churches, movements and parties are shown to be the main actors. The EU funded European Christian Political Movement plays a significant role and channels its funds to anti-gender activities, for example. Another example is One of Us, a European Citizens’ Initiative active since 2012 which has campaigned against reproductive rights for women. It has secured EU funding; has connections to Spanish, Italian and French organisations. Its ‘astroturfing’ (creating the impression of grassroots support) campaign kicked off in Vatican City in 2012. Datta’s report shows that such anti-gender agents can tap into publicly available funds to engage in various disruptive activities including demonstrations, social media, and support for clinics established to mislead young people seeking birth control, or advice on their sexuality. Not all religious organisations are implicated, but the report finds illiberal and anti-democratic actors mobilising in otherwise benign associations.

Does it matter? Of course, it does. Democracies depend not only on elected institutions, but also on broadly agreed and systematically maintained rights that have expanded over time to accommodate new claims for equality. Anti-gender activists play a long game in their quest to roll back these rights. Tip of the Iceberg shows their infrastructure in Europe may be slotting nicely into place.

When the US Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the American constitutional right to abortion, enjoyed for more than fifty years, was overturned. The decision was quickly implemented at state level by red states that were also restricting voting rights. Such activity was not limited to the USA. In 2022 the UK government quietly removed reference to sexual and reproductive rights and ‘bodily autonomy’ from the multi-national ‘Statement on freedom of religion or belief and gender equality’, while in Poland and Hungary gender-based rights were removed. These attacks on gender-based rights have gone together with reductions in human rights and of democratic guarantees.

Neil Datta’s report Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Europe 2009-2018 charts the funding, activities and outputs of an increasing number of activities committed to undermining sex and gender equality policies. He argues that activity rooted in anti-gender positions may also attract supporters to alt and far-right movements. He therefore contends that anti-gender politics and illiberal politics are linked.

Datta’s arguments turn on funding information. Funding is a key resource of anti-gender rights activists. He maps the $707.2 million they received between 2009 and 2018, a period during which spending increased fourfold. Most of the money came from various national and transnational organisations of the religious and political right in Europe; some from Russian organisations associated with oligarchs Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev linked to far-right European parties, and some from US religious and alt-right groups. Funding is generated and circulates in various ways. US anti-gender actors operate on two levels. Their ultra-conservative think tanks act visibly in Europe, fundraising and mobilising the grassroots and exporting their knowledge production, whilst their financial backers operate via the billionaires and private foundations that bankroll the US Christian right.

Datta’s report is incomplete; it relies on publicly available information which is rarely itself complete. It is likely that significant amounts of funding activity around the 117 groups he has identified is hidden. For example, unknown amounts of spending are provided by four Russian state level government agencies whose accounts are not publicly available.

The 117 anti-gender rights groups that Datta identifies in Europe are, he reasons, only the tip of the iceberg. In evidence the report traces connections between public and religious based funding. Official representatives of Catholic, protestant and Orthodox churches, movements and parties are shown to be the main actors. The EU funded European Christian Political Movement plays a significant role and channels its funds to anti-gender activities, for example. Another example is One of Us, a European Citizens’ Initiative active since 2012 which has campaigned against reproductive rights for women. It has secured EU funding; has connections to Spanish, Italian and French organisations. Its ‘astroturfing’ (creating the impression of grassroots support) campaign kicked off in Vatican City in 2012. Datta’s report shows that such anti-gender agents can tap into publicly available funds to engage in various disruptive activities including demonstrations, social media, and support for clinics established to mislead young people seeking birth control, or advice on their sexuality. Not all religious organisations are implicated, but the report finds illiberal and anti-democratic actors mobilising in otherwise benign associations.

Does it matter? Of course, it does. Democracies depend not only on elected institutions, but also on broadly agreed and systematically maintained rights that have expanded over time to accommodate new claims for equality. Anti-gender activists play a long game in their quest to roll back these rights. Tip of the Iceberg shows their infrastructure in Europe may be slotting nicely into place.

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    Joni Lovenduski

    Joni Lovenduski is Chair of the Political Quarterly Editorial Board. She is also Professor Emerita at Birkbeck College, University of London and Visiting Professor at Kings College London.

    Articles by Joni Lovenduski
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