New UN Agency for Women Readies for Takeoff

Thalif Deen

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 21 (IPS) — When the 192-member General Assembly, the highest policy- making body at the United Nations, decided to create a special agency last July to promote the advancement of women, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed it as a “historic” decision.

“We enter a new era in the U.N.’s work for women,” he said, pledging gender equality and the empowerment of women as one of his “top priorities”.

Called U.N. Women, and launched in January this year, it was the first such body with a wide-ranging mandate and a proposed 500-million-dollar annual budget.

But its creation was relatively late compared with the establishment of a slew of U.N. agencies dealing with a wide variety of issues, including population, children, refugees, health, labor, economic development and food and agriculture.

The exclusive promotion of gender empowerment by a separate U.N. agency came nearly 65 years after the establishment of the world body.

Still, the secretary-general acknowledged “the hard work and determination of member states” – besides the behind-the- scenes wrangling and hard bargaining – in reaching the agreement, “and the years of advocacy by the global women’s movement which has been instrumental in making U.N. Women a reality.”

The agenda for U.N. Women, however, will be set in coordination with the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the U.N.’s principal inter-governmental policy- making body dedicated exclusively to advancing the cause of gender empowerment.

As the CSW begins its 10-day annual session through Mar. 4, the first such meeting after the creation of U.N. Women, government representatives and over 1,500 women activists from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are expected to focus on several key gender-related issues.

These include gender equality in science and technology; elimination of preventable maternal deaths; rural women as drivers of poverty and hunger eradication; gender equality and sustainable development; and the elimination of discrimination and violence against girls.

“While girls and women have made significant inroads in education, their educational gains have not fully translated into increased employment opportunities and better quality jobs,” says U.N. Women.

Women face specific barriers, including discriminatory laws, restrictive social norms, limited access to information and social networks, and unequal sharing of responsibilities within the household.

Women still make up nearly two-thirds of the world’s 759 million illiterate adults and they also account for only 29 percent of researchers across 121 countries.

“What I see as significant this year is less the formal agenda, and more the opportunities around the CSW sessions for discussion of U.N. Women, and what both civil society and governments expect from, and are willing to do, to realize the vision of its founding,” says Charlotte Bunch, founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.

This is a historical moment in a world pregnant with possibilities for women – from democracy movements in the Middle East, where women are organizing to have a real voice, to greater numbers of women in parliaments and as heads of state in every region, she told IPS.

“U.N. Women can become a vital force for helping build the capacity of these women from the grassroots to state houses

– playing an important role in ensuring that this next generation of women leaders are heard, and help shape global and national policy decisions,” said Bunch.

According to the United Nations, U.N. Women will have two key roles: support inter-governmental bodies such as the CSW in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms, and also help member states implement those standards.

Additionally, it will also help provide “suitable technical and financial support to those countries that request it, as well as forge effective partnerships with civil society.”

Ban says he will not only work “to end the scourge of violence against women”, but also “appoint more women to senior positions (in the U.N. system) and promote “efforts to reduce maternal mortality rates.”

Bunch, one of the key campaigners for gender empowerment, told IPS the creation of U.N. women was a groundbreaking step because it  established the institutional framework that can bring women’s rights and gender equality into a more central and powerful role in all U.N. programs and policies.

“What we need now are visionary plans, concrete strategies, and resources to realize this to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

As the Under-Secretary-General for U.N. Women, Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, “is herself a powerful example of this new leadership of women in the world”, said Bunch, who is also co-chair of the Facilitation Committee of an international coalition of NGOs, which successfully launched a global campaign for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) in the U.N. system.

She has spoken forcefully about the importance of bringing a wide range of women’s experiences and perspectives into the organization, declared Bunch.

“What needs to be done now is for U.N. Women to establish concrete and multiple mechanisms from the local to the global level for civil society engagement and meaningful participation in the shaping of U.N. Women’s work,” she added.

She said U.N. Women would not have been formed without strong advocacy from civil society, and it cannot succeed unless these forces are recognized and brought in as an integral part of its future – and not just in an ad hoc manner.

Asked about funding, Bunch said member states showed great enthusiasm for U.N. Women at its first Executive Board meeting in January, “but they have shamefully not yet pledged significant additional money for its work”.

“Governments have asked for a more detailed strategic plan, which we understand they will get at the June Executive Board meeting,” she said.

But if member states fail to provide the support needed both to produce such a plan and particularly to set it in motion at a higher level, Bunch warned, they will miss an important historical moment, once more betraying their promises to the world’s women.