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Category: International

Finally, a UN Women’s Agency with Muscle

| November 10, 2009

Recently the UN announced approval of a new agency for women—an event that followed years of complex organizing by individuals and advocacy groups around the world. Here, one of the principle coordinators of that ongoing effort explains what it means for women, and the work that still remains to ensure its success.

This fall, after years of advocacy, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution to create a strong women’s agency. To be headed by an undersecretary general—the third highest-ranking UN officer, after the secretary general and his deputy—the new unit will consolidate the work of four existing bodies. If robustly implemented, the resolution promises a politically powerful, independent agency with strong leadership and increased funds to move forward on adopted goals for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The action is a landmark for women around the world who have worked tirelessly to persuade member states to keep their many promises since the first world conference on women in Mexico City in 1975. However, the victory did not come easily, and much work remains to be done to ensure that a new full-fledged agency becomes a reality.

Organizing Across Borders The Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign is an ever-growing network of more than 400 women’s, human rights and social justice groups from around the world advocating for the creation of a stronger women’s agency at the United Nations. Its efforts informally began in 2006, shortly after the secretary general appointed a high-level panel to assess the effectiveness and coherence of the UN system. The Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) and theCenter for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) quickly met with 50 women’s activists from around the world to strategize about adding gender to the reform agenda at the United Nations. In February 2008, during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the GEAR Campaign was officially launched in New York. While WEDO and CWGL have been the leaders of this global effort, the campaign’s success belongs to hundreds of women and men—organized around global and regional focal points, with a 15-member working group in New York—who lobbied and advocated from all corners of the world for the creation of this entity at the UN. Charlotte Bunch (founding director of CWGL), Stephen Lewis (co-director of AIDS-Free World), along with others and the GEAR Campaign as a whole, deserve special recognition for their invaluable contribution to the gender architecture reform process.—Colette Tamko

World leaders have repeatedly committed to goals of empowering women in major international policy documents—for example, the Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality and Security Council resolutions that recognize women as key to conflict resolution and identify rape as an act of war. Yet there exists a large gap between setting a goal and its implementation, and gender inequality continues to exist in all societies. The UN’s machinery on women’s rights has been fragmented, under-resourced and uncoordinated—a situation the new resolution is designed to address. But how did this come about, and what will a new women’s agency at the UN mean?

In February 2006, former Secretary General Kofi Annan convened a working group—the High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence—to explore how the UN could be strengthened in the areas of development, humanitarian affairs, and the environment. Of the 15-member panel, only three were women. Women worldwide began to pressure the UN to add gender equality to the SWC Panel’s agenda. Women’s groups met regularly with UN staff, and organized to ensure that advocates were present at every panel session to raise the issue of women’s rights. Due to these efforts, as well as input from governments and the UN, the panel concluded that the UN as currently structured is too fragmented to meet many of its development objectives. It recommended consolidating and strengthening the women’s machinery at the UN in its November 9, 2006 report, which Annan formally transmitted to the General Assembly, with his recommendations, the next month. In March 2007, during the Commission on the Status of Women, current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon endorsed the panel’s recommendations.

The panel recommended: 1) Creating a stronger UN organization for women by consolidating the current four units (Division for the Advancement of Women, Office of the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues, United Nations Development Fund for Women and International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women); 2) Creating a new undersecretary general, ensuring a higher leadership status than provided by the current UN women’s entities; 3) Giving the agency a dual mandate, including both policy setting functions at headquarters and operational/programming responsibilities at the country level; 4) “Ambitious funding”, starting at $1 billion.

Gender has received low priority, often coming behind other development issues. According to a 2002 survey, of the 1,300 UN staff who have responsibility for gender equality as part of their job description, nearly 1,000 are relatively junior with little substantive expertise, no budgets, and who deal with gender as one element of a large portfolio. In 2008, the allowance for all four women’s entitiesaccounted for less than 1 percent of the UN budget—with UNIFEM receiving by far the largest amount ($215 million) and the others sharing less than $6 million.

Since 2007, governments have discussed the implementation of the panel’s recommendations. The inter-governmental negotiations have been slow, and the adopted resolution lacks some necessary elements for the immediate launch of the entity. The resolution only “strongly supports” the agency’s creation and “supports” that it be led by an under secretary general. It would also coordinate a UN strategy of mainstreaming gender work in other UN bodies.

The secretary general must move swiftly to produce a proposal that outlines critical outstanding issues to be negotiated—details of its governance, civil society participation, and how the entity should operate at the country level. Equally important is the amount and source of funding for the entity. Funds will come from both assessed and voluntary contributions, but the total amount, and the balance between the two, remains undecided.

The secretary general must move swiftly to produce a proposal that outlines critical outstanding issues to be negotiated—details of its governance, civil society participation, and how the entity should operate at the country level. Equally important is the amount and source of funding for the entity. Funds will come from both assessed and voluntary contributions, but the total amount, and the balance between the two, remains undecided.

The General Assembly and the UN Secretariat have an enormous responsibility in 2009-2010 to fully implement the resolution, resolve all outstanding issues and appoint a skilled undersecretary general to lead the agency. Whether we achieve success and build a UN that truly works for women on the ground depends on how they choose to move forward now. Women around the world are watching, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

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