After 65 Years, A UN Agency for Women

For decades, advocates for women believed that a campaign for "gender mainstreaming" at the United Nations—that is, consciously factoring women into programs worldwide, promoting laws to support women at local and national levels and ensuring that women were well represented and heard in the UN itself—was all that was needed to bring the status of women, and women’s rights, in from the margins of the international system. That was never enough. The principle may have been a good one, but around the world and inside the UN, women were often sidelined. Globally, countries signed agreements protecting and benefiting women but did not implement or enforce them.

A look at the scorecard of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, adopted by member nations in 2000 and designed to reduce poverty, disease and a host of other problems preventing development by 2015, show major indicators specifically on women and girls lagging behind targets in other areas, such as poverty reduction. (An obvious question is, How can poverty reduction be sustainable without the involvement of half the world’s population?)

Now, under pressure from hundreds of advocacy organizations worldwide and some determined governments, mostly in the European Union and North America (with Canada in a leading role), the General Assembly on July 2 created a new agency dedicated to promoting women’s rights and involvement in development, peacemaking, politics and economic activity.

With the organization’s characteristic flair, it was named UN Women.

The agency will take over the work of four existing funds or programs, which will disappear, although some of their staffs are likely to be transferred into UN Women. The four to be phased out are the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women; the Division for the Advancement of Women; the UN Development Fund for Women; and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.

Advocates for women, within and outside the UN system, had long argued that the existing programs for women were grossly underfunded and unable to exert influence in the field, where more financially strong UN agencies with much larger budgets—Unicef, the World Food Program, the High Commissioner for Refugees or the World Health Organization, to name a few—could deploy formidable teams. That in turn allowed them to mount public relations campaigns heralding their work, which leads to more voluntary funding. A common criticism of the existing structures for women was that they were not able to be "operational"—that is, run effective programs on their own. That is not to say there were no successes. Unifem recently mounted and led a very high-profile campaign to end violence against women, though it is too early to measure results.

The General Assembly resolution creating UN Women expects the new agency to have both operational and what the UN calls "normative" roles: dealing with policies and promoting and monitoring international covenants and agreements, working with the Commission on the Status of Women, a separate intergovernmental body, and the UN’s Economic and Social Council. ECOSOC, as it is known, was created to parallel the Security Council, focusing on social and economic conditions, but it has not been very bold in carrying out its mandate.

It is ironic that the Security Council, not ECOSOC, began acting in the late 1990s against the sexual abuse of women in conflict situations. Four Security Council resolutions have been passed since the landmark Resolution 1325 in 2000. (None of them carry mandatory enforcement, but the point was made that employing violence against women as a strategy in conflict—think of Bosnian rape camps or systematic brutality in the Democratic Republic of Congo—is now an internationally recognized war crime.)

The Security Council resolutions have been used globally to support broader programs to curtail violence and discrimination against women—sometimes still explained away by "culture." In not a few places, women’s equality and gender sensitivity more broadly are considered ideas foisted on ex-colonial societies by "Western feminists." In Uganda recently, a thoughtful and well-meaning police superintendent in a rural area told me that efforts to draw men into a better understanding of gender relationships needed to be translated first into local terms—a valid point. While local officials were teaching the values of partnership in marriage, he said, the word "empowerment" was scaring men away.

Helping people devise culturally sensitive approaches might be a job for UN Women. The hitch is that such operations in the field, including support for local nongovernmental organizations, will be funded, according to the General Assembly, by voluntary contributions, not from the UN’s regular budget, which will cover staffing and the normative functions. An operating budget of $500 million is suggested as a good starting point, but the majority of that will have to be raised from governments, and success is by no means assured. Advocates for the agency in organizations such as the international coalition for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) and its components or partners—the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, WEDO and AIDS-Free World, among others—hoped for a budget of $1 billion.

Now what? UN Women is all potential at its birth, and the next six months will determine whether it will wield any more power than the pile of documents promoting and protecting women that have been accumulating in UN headquarters. The next few weeks are especially critical, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chooses a head for the new agency (or "entity," as the General Assembly, hedging its enthusiasm, calls it). The new agency’s program and its staffing could rise or fall on the choice of the undersecretary-general to design and lead UN Women. The head will also have to be a diplomat, since UN Women will, in effect, have to be invited by governments to work in their countries. Ban does not have a stellar record at making an impact with appointments of women to high UN jobs. His deputy secretary-general—the second-highest rank in the organization—is Asha-Rose Migiro, a self-effacing Tanzanian who has not made a strong impression among governments hoping for a good manager to complement Ban’s nonstop globetrotting diplomacy. Helen Clark, once a courageous prime minister of New Zealand, has all but disappeared in the top job at the important United Nations Development Program. These are very different days from a decade or more ago when the UN "cabinet" included a pack of what Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general, called "gutsy" women: Carol Bellamy, Sadako Ogata, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Catherine Bertini and Nafis Sadik (who presided with flinty determination over the historic 1994 Cairo conference on population, which expanded UN commitments on women’s reproductive rights).


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