International Encyclopedia of Civil Society
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Helmut K. Anheier and Stefan Toepler

Martti MuukkonenContact Information

(1)  World YWCA, 16 Ancienne Route, CH-1218 Grand Saconnex, Geneva, Switzerland

Contact Information Martti Muukkonen


Without Abstract

Address of Organization

16 Ancienne Route CH-1218 Grand Saconnex Geneva Switzerland


Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) is, along with the YMCA and Student Christian Movement (SCM), one of the three great lay organizations that pioneered the ecumenical movement. All three have more similarities than differences between them. The speciality of the YWCA is its focus on women. It can be defined as a Christian women’s empowerment organization.

In 2007, the YWCA worked in 122 countries and had 100,000 volunteers serving 25 million women and girls around the world. The actual number of members is not given due to differing membership criteria of national organizations.


The origins of the YWCA are, on the one hand, in the prayer meetings of the mid-nineteenth century and, on the other hand, in the network of women’s homes first established in London in 1855. In 1877, these movements merged and took the name YWCA. Most of the founding mothers of YWCAs were relatives of the YMCA leaders. Similar associations were already established in the European Continent, France claiming to have the oldest YWCA. After the spread of the movement, the World YWCA was founded in 1894.

Along with the Social Gospel movement, the emphasis of the YWCA work focused more and more on the empowerment of labor-class women.

The history of the YWCA is much in par with the YMCA and SCM. All these organizations have partly overlapping membership, and many programs (student work, work for victims of war, international youth conferences, etc.) are organized jointly.


In 1894, the YWCA adopted the modified YMCA Paris Basis (see Young Men’s Christian Association) as its basis but in 1914, following the example of the SCM, it changed it to express the Trinitarian Christology: “The World YWCA is founded on and inspired by the Christian faith.”

There is a division inside the movement concerning the emphasis on the “C”: some national movements have practically dropped it, some refer to the Judeo-Christian principles, and some are more or less devoted religious organizations. It is probable that, like in other Christian organizations, the more the movement gets members from the Third World, the more religious issues will come forward in the agenda.


Traditionally, the YWCA has been a youth organization with a wide range of youth work. While this is still true, the activities vary from country to country. In some parts of the world, the YWCA is clearly a membership organization while in some other parts of the globe it is more a service provider.

On a global level, the emphasis of the World YWCA is on women’s health and HIV/AIDS, human rights of women and children, world peace with justice, and sustainable development (including women’s economic justice and the environment).

Structure and Governance

The YWCA is a federal organization in that local associations are members of national movements and thus, in turn, members of the World YWCA. The highest decisive body of the World YWCA is the World Council that meets every fourth year. Between the councils, the World Board (including elected officials) carries the business of the organization in accordance to the decisions of the World Council. Along with the World YWCA, there exist eight regional organizations.

Like in many international federal organizations, the composition of boards and the nationality of elected officials are highly political issues. There are informal rules concerning the rotation of offices from continent to continent and agreements to ensure the interests of the largest movements.


Because of the federal structure of the YWCA, the total amount of money involved in the YWCA movement is not known. The quadrennial incomes and expenditures of the World YWCA for 2003–2007 is about CHF10 million. Major incomes are voluntary contributions (4.5 million), affiliation fees (2.7 million), program transfers (1.6 million), and investment incomes (1.2 million). In comparison, the yearly income of the US YWCA 2006–2007 was USD 9.7 million and the incomes of the YWCA of England and Wales was GBP 5 million in 2008. Moreover, when many national movements (Scandinavian, Canadian) are merged with the YMCA, there is no clear organizational boundary.

Major Accomplishments

The YWCA has been one of the pioneer organizations in youth work, refugee work, and development cooperation. Much of this work has been done in cooperation with the YMCA and other organizations; thus, the YWCA is also a pioneer of interorganizational cooperation.


Faith-Based Organizations


Non-Governmental Organizations, Definition and History

Religious Organizations

World Council of Churches

YMCAs, World Alliance of

References/Further Readings

Rice, A. V. (1947). A history of the World’s Young Women’s Christian Association. New York: Woman’s Press.
Seymour-Jones, C. (1994). Journey of faith. The history of the World YWCA, 1945–1994. London: Allison & Busby.