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The UN Steps Up to Women's Rights Challenges

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Upon the appointment of Michelle Bachelet to head the UN's promising new women's agency, Shazia Z. Rafi, secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action, explains how an international coalition of women effectively negotiated the UN power process to get us to this point.

The UN is changing. This month, the body announced the creation of a new agency, UN Women. The agency, to be headed by ex-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, takes over programs on women’s rights previously handled piecemeal by four separate UN departments. UN Women kicks off with about $220 million from the annual budgets of the departments it replaces, but officials and activists expect that figure to double in the coming years.

The change has been a long time coming, and in recent days, I have found myself reflecting back on the women who made this possible.

The modern story begins at the Beijing Conference in 1995, where, women activists from inside and outside governments converged to forge a new agenda. So determined were the women to be there, that normal protocols were suspended. In the Indian parliament, women MPs stormed the Speaker’s office to insist that they were all going and that he had no business “selecting” the delegation.

Beijing’s success owed much to New York's Bella Abzug, the former congresswoman who had a few years earlier come up with the key to moving governments on women’s rights: make women speak with one voice, on a daily and consistent basis. She called this “the Women’s Caucus” and its daily sessions became the indispensable organ of every major UN Conference in the 1990s: from Environment, Reproductive Health, to Gender Equality and Justice.

When the governmental rules would prevent women’s voices from being directly heard, the Women’s Caucus lobbied to have NGOs included on government delegations. If all else failed, parliamentarians served as two-way channels, on their official delegations and holding sessions with their constituents outside government. The result, in Bella’s words “was the Beijing Platform of Action, the strongest statement of consensus on women's equality, empowerment and justice ever produced by governments.”

However, Beijing would have remained a consciousness-raising event if the women had not persisted in mainstreaming it. “Somewhere in the last eight to ten years a momentum built up from both inside and outside the system,” says UN Under-Secretary-General for Management Angela Kane. In Washington, Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney and Connie Morella came together to form the Beijing Caucus, a story repeated in the 187 countries that came to Beijing.

There were still obstacles. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali “promised us in 1996 that he would try to implement our proposal of asking governments to nominate two candidates for every post—one man and one woman” says Maj-Britt Theorin, former MP and disarmament ambassador for Sweden. His term was up before he could be held to that promise but delegations of women went through the UN’s revolving doors at every General Assembly with the same demands.

In October 1997, I joined Margaret Alva of India and Margaret Reynolds of Australia, both MPs and members of Parliamentarians for Global Action, in presenting a list of women candidates for senior UN positions to then-Secretary General Kofi Annan. As always, we were received with a gracious smile and after a deliberative review referred to senior personnel officials. Of the long list eventually one was offered a deputy representative post but chose to accept her government’s offer of an ambassadorship because it had “clearer power and responsibility.”

All this would still have remained a paper exercise if there had not been a process with teeth that governments would accept to be bound by: the Millennium Development Goals. Not only do the goals make gender equality a central objective of development, but the process of drafting and implementing them has helped women kick down the door to senior office inside the UN.

The drafters were led by Eveline Herfkens, former development minister for the Netherlands. Today of the affiliated agencies helping to carry out Herfkens’ vision, five—UN Development Program, UN Population Fund, World Health Organization, High Commission for Human Rights and World Food Program—are headed by women; senior women dot the second and third tiers of these organizations. Every ad-hoc committee has at least one or two women, often from one of the developing countries. But challenges still remain: of all ambassadors at the United Nations only 19, or about 10 percent, are women.

Adding a final twist was the process of UN reform called the Coherence panel. “Women’s groups decided in 2006 that we should add gender empowerment to the Coherence panel’s mandate on governance and accountability,” says Bani Duggal of Bahai International. “We took a petition signed by 400 women representatives of civil society and the UN agreed to our demand.” Using the Women’s Caucus model, they launched the GEAR [Gender Equality Architecture and Reform] campaign, which met regularly, almost obsessively, and commissioned White Papers to lay out its arguments in ways that governments could understand. Thanks in large part to GEAR, the Coherence panel issued a strong report in 2008; within it was the demand to change the gender structure of the UN and create a comprehensive entity, a women’s superagency.

What is astonishing is that this entire advocacy campaign has come within a less than $2 million dedicated budget; less than 10 percent of other campaigns for the creation of international institutions. “Women’s groups and experts just did the work without thinking about where the funding would come from,” said GEAR’s Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers.

Having gotten the entity approved by the General Assembly earlier this year, women’s groups now hurried to get as wide a selection of candidates as possible with credibility enough in government circles to be able to withstand a governmental nomination process. “There is no reason why individuals should not nominate themselves... But if a candidate is not supported by his or her own country, the chances of success are much less,” says Sir Mark Lyall-Grant, ambassador of the United Kingdom.

None of the Permanent Five Security Council countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia) had a formal candidate, and the informal word was that the post was intended for a representative of a developing country. Despite Michelle Bachelet’s early lead, 26 eventual candidates were nominated. They included government ministers, heads of NGOs, experts, senior UN officials—a celebratory list of what women had achieved since Beijing. It is a pool of senior talent that the UN system can tap for other posts. “A number of them have also put their name forward [to] head UNFPA [United Nations Fund for Population Activities],” said Grant.

As Bachelet takes the reins of UN Women next month, she should start by reviewing what these contenders for her job had to say about their aspirations for women. In an interview, one of the candidates who did not wish to be named was asked why she applied although it was a very long shot: “I wanted my people, my government to know what my hopes were for women, to recognize the work I and my sisters had done; and to test if my world had really changed enough that they could name me as their choice.”

For previous related WMC Exclusives, see "Finally, a UN Women's Agency with Muscle" and, on Michelle Bachelet's accomplishments as president, "In Chile, Bachelet Steps Down."

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